Sustainable agriculture includes holistic agricultural practices that are environmentally, economically, and socially viable in the long term. It involves the economical production of food, fibre, and other animal-plant products using farming methods that protect and preserve the environment and social communities related to farming.
An integration of environmental health, economic profitability, and socio-economic equality, such farming emphasizes the need of the present generation to obtain food without compromising the ability of future generations to obtain theirs. This means development and maintenance of efficient ecosystems which requires lower levels of material inputs.
Agriculture used to be a holistic activity till half a century ago when crop and animal farming were integrated into a balanced ecosystem. Technological advances coupled with government policy support enabled economical operation of large farms that used machines, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, irrigation, and genetically-modified seeds in copious amounts.
Farms became larger, specialised, and more centralised. The market was now dominated by a few powerful corporations as small farmers faced extinction. For a while all appeared hunky dory. Slowly, the environmental, economical, and social costs of this model came to the fore.
Pollution of land, air, and water manifested through topsoil depletion, decline in soil fertility, and exhaustion plus contamination of groundwater. Raising livestock and poultry in unnaturally cramped facilities and feeding them steroids to boost productivity degrades their health, produces abundant wastes, and lowers the quality of produce obtained from them.
Farm workers and communities around farms are exposed to toxic chemicals and the local ecosystems are destroyed. Environment is degraded and so is the local economy. Small farmers find intensive agriculture progressively and prohibitively expensive and are forced towards distress migration that spells doom for the local socio-economic stability.
Comprehensively Viable Sustainable Agriculture
Sagacious use of natural and human resources is the cornerstone for sustainable agriculture. The precise approach depends on topography, climate, soil, pests, inputs in the locality, and the aspirations of the farmer / grower. However, certain general practices are identified as:
- Selection of animal and plant species compatible with local climate and conditions. Results are best when crops and livestock are integrated into a mutually beneficial relationship such as using cow dung as manure, cow urine as a pesticide, and crop stems as fodder
- Pasture-based livestock husbandry that allows animals to move, behave, and feed naturally
- Crop and livestock diversification for environmental and economic sustainability vis-à-vis monoculture farming. Crop rotation and planting cover crops replenish soil fertility and suppress pests, pathogens, and weeds
- Judicious application of inputs with preference to natural, renewable, and on-farm-available inputs for proper management of soil and water such as scientific irrigation and use of natural pesticides, fertilisers, and seeds
Transition from unsustainable to sustainable farming is a process heavily influenced by the aspirations of the farmer / grower. The changing and sometimes competing relationships between all players in the food production chain viz. input suppliers, farmers, farm-workers, unions, food processors, traders, retailers and wholesalers, consumers, researchers, and policymakers, calls for assumption of collective responsibility.
Intervention in policies related to farming research, food and agriculture, land use, and labour is necessary for making sustainable agriculture commercially viable. Above all, we as customers can send strong signals to the production chain through the purchase of sustainable agriculture products even if it means shelling out a few more bucks for the time being.