eco-friendly farming

Sustainable Farming Basics and Impacts

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Food & Agriculture 101

Sustainable Farming or Sustainable Agriculture is a way of producing food indefinitely. Some ways of producing food protect the “life support systems” that we depend on – from healthy soil to clean groundwater – while other methods damage them. “Sustainable” food production means using approaches that do not degrade these essential systems but protect and enhance them so that food production can be sustained over the long run.

The industrial agriculture approaches that have come to dominate American agriculture have been advanced by ill-considered government policies and subsidies. Such approaches involve massive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers which are not sustainable, since they contaminate soil, deplete groundwater, pollute rivers, and cause other problems.

UCS promotes a more practical and scientific approach to agriculture—one that treats the farm as an integrated system composed of soil, water, plants, animals, insects, and microscopic organisms whose interaction can be adjusted and enriched to solve problems and maximize yields. This kind of agriculture is highly productive, takes advantage of natural systems and processes rather than ignoring or fighting against them, and is sustainable far into the future.

UCS is working to put U.S. agriculture on a wiser track, by transforming government policies so that they support smart, sustainable farming practices instead of damaging industrial methods.

These policies need to include scientific research to further explore the interactions among all elements of farming and to produce appropriate new technologies, extension services to update farmers about new developments in science and technology, as well as programs to help farmers make the transition to sustainable agriculture (a much more constructive use of subsidies than the current approach).

Organic Agriculture Basics

Certified organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. For food to be certified “organic,” standards must be met at every stage—from the field or ranch to the processing plant, and all the way to grocery store shelves. Organic crops are grown without conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge, or genetic engineering. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals raised without antibiotics or added growth hormones.

In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act to put the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in charge of developing consistent standards for food products labeled as “organic.” After over a decade of regulatory efforts and input from farmers, consumers, environmental groups, and other stakeholders, the USDA organic standards were launched in 2002. UCS and other groups applauded the final standards for providing meaningful guidance to consumers who wish to support farmers and ranchers who avoid industrial agriculture practices that can harm human health and degrade the natural environment.

Since 2002, growth in the organic food sector has boomed, far out-pacing the conventional food market. Today, the USDA organic seal is the gold standard in consumer food labels, thanks to its combination of meaningful standards, strong enforcement mechanisms, and strict requirements for verifiability of producer and processor claims.

UCS is a member of the National Organic Coalition (NOC), a group committed to protecting the strength and integrity of USDA’s organic standards. Also, NOC strives to strengthen the standards where necessary and to advocate on Capitol Hill and at USDA for research and assistance to farmers that will enable continued growth in organic agriculture.

Sustainable Agriculture: A New Vision

We need a system of agriculture that meets our needs now and for future generations – and that means producing food in a way that can work indefinitely without degrading our health or the natural “life support systems” we depend on. But too often today, decisions are driven by short-term thinking and profits, rather than by a vision of the agriculture system that will best meet our needs in the long-term.

Changing agriculture in ways that make it more sustainable is a big challenge, but it can be done. Essential to accomplishing change is knowing where we are and where we want to go. Below are snapshots of the industrial present and a sustainable future for one agricultural region—the Midwest. Similar snapshots of agriculture in North Carolina or California would be different regarding crops and climate, as well as in the history and culture of the region. But those differences are less significant than the common vision: a thriving agricultural system that produces healthy, abundant food now and into the future while maintaining the strength and health of the natural systems upon which all life depends.

The Present

Imagine driving across the northern half of the state of Iowa. At first glance, you see rolling hills of seemingly bucolic farmland. But look closer, and you’ll see that all the fields consist of only two crops—corn and soybeans—mile after mile. And although you can’t see it, nearly all the crop land around you is doused with chemicals: herbicides and insecticides to control the weeds and insect pests that tend to run rampant when just one or two crops dominate large areas, and oil-based synthetic fertilizers that substitute for healthy soils teeming with beneficial organisms.

Off in the distance, there is a huge swine operation with massive amounts of waste that you smell long before you see it. The pesticides, fertilizers, and pig manure seep into the groundwater and runoff into local streams and rivers, and ultimately to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.

In late summer, you would see huge fossil-fuel burning combines crawling up and down the fields, but you won’t see many birds or butterflies, or for that matter, many people in the fields. And while the highway is bustling with trucks, you won’t see many people even in the towns you drive through. Perhaps strangest of all, most of the food products on store shelves in this fertile farming region come from somewhere else. In fact, there is very little “food” growing here, as virtually all of the corn and soybeans that dominate the landscape are fed to livestock and poultry, incorporated into highly processed food products, or diverted from the food supply to make biofuels.

Why does Northern Iowa look like this? Over the past several decades, U.S. food production has taken an unwise and costly turn. Until recently, food animals and crops were produced nearby, frequently on the same farms, in an integrated, self-sustaining way that was often beneficial to farmers and society as a whole. But agriculture has undergone a profound transformation that has disrupted this balance system. Poorly designed food and agriculture policies have promoted the rise of CAFOs (massive “confined animal feeding operations,” which crowd many thousands of animals closely together in a small space that the land cannot support). And these policies have also promoted a huge overdependence on chemical inputs (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and so on). The results include serious problems from polluted air and water, increases in antibiotic-resistant disease, eroded cropland, damaged natural systems, and foods that must be shipped long distances.

The Future

What would Northern Iowa look like if we embraced a sustainable agriculture future, designed to produce food indefinitely without damaging our land, air, and water? Farms of all types and sizes would produce a variety of foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables as well as grains and livestock. The soil would regain its richness since farmers would no longer poison it to control insects. Sophisticated, modern crop rotation and the use of beneficial insects would control pest populations. Crops and livestock would have been bred to fit into the new smart pasture operations. Rural good water would be safer to drink, while rivers and streams would again run clear enough for people to swim and for fish, birds, and other wildlife to flourish. Furthermore, more Iowans would be fed by local foods, lessening the impact of food transport on our energy system and climate.

The Importance of Sustainable Farming

Where will the methods and practices of sustainable agriculture come from? Despite the decades of work in the courts, the media, and on the Hill, the environmental community has had a disappointingly little impact on pesticide and fertilizer use in this country. The sad truth is that the 30 years following Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring were characterized by dramatic increases—not decreases—in pesticide use.

The reason is simple. The environmental message “Don’t use pesticides” was negative and ran counter to what most farmers believed was their economic survival. Because no alternatives to pesticides appeared economically viable, most farmers believed their choice was to use chemicals or go out of business. Little wonder that despite lawsuits, a federal pesticide law, and growing public concern, pesticide and fertilizer use stubbornly increased.

Now things are beginning to change. Pesticide use is slowly diminishing, and it is becoming clear that new approaches to agriculture offer the possibility of huge reductions in chemical use. The importance of the environmental benefits of lower pesticide use—clean water, thriving populations of fish and birds, fewer industrial and transportation accidents—is hard to overstate. And these are in addition to the non-pesticide-related benefits of sustainable practices like soil conservation, soil health, and increased wildlife habitat.

While many factors have contributed to this turn of events, a pivotal factor has been the emergence of a group within the agricultural community who—rather than just decrying pesticides—developed and proved nonchemical practices of growing crops that made economic sense to farmers.

The signal feature of these methods is that they are both environmentally sound and economically viable. Their importance cannot be overestimated. If offered such alternatives, many farmers will turn away from chemicals rapidly and voluntarily. No regulation. No bureaucracy. No coercion. Without such alternatives, farmers will be pitted against environmentalists, and neither group is likely to win.

We need many more of these innovative, sustainable practices. Where are they going to come from? In general, from where they originated: the sustainable farming community. While university research, better commodity programs, and other institutional measure are vital to underpin these efforts, the key to the transformation to an environmentally conscious agriculture is environmentally conscious farmers.

Like everyone else, I am a child of the earth. I love my animals, and I love the environment. As modernization pushes us forward and introduces us to an exciting new world filled with advanced technology, it is easy to forget about.

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