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Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable agriculture helps the environment, but there are concerns about its efficiency.

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Unleashing its controversial cargo, a colorful crop duster saturates the skies above a field of winter wheat in Oklahoma. Pesticides protect crops against insects, invasive weeds, and even microorganisms—and they often increase the yield produced by a given field.

But alarms are sounding about the impact these chemicals have on the environment, as well as on the people who consume food treated with the ubiquitous products. The growing organic food industry serves those who prefer food free of treatment with most conventional pesticides.

Sustainable agriculture takes many forms, but at its core is a rejection of the industrial approach to food production developed during the 20th century.

This system, with its reliance on monoculture, mechanization, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, biotechnology, and government subsidies, has made food abundant and affordable. However, the ecological and social price have been steep: erosion, depleted and contaminated soil and water resources, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, labor abuses, and the decline of the family farm.

Ecologically Beneficial

The concept of sustainable agriculture embraces a wide range of techniques, including organic, free-range, low-input, holistic, and biodynamic.

The common thread among these methods is an embrace of farming practices that mimic natural ecological processes. Farmers minimize tilling and water use, encourage healthy soil by planting fields with different crops year after year and integrating croplands with livestock grazing, and avoid pesticide use by nurturing the presence of organisms that control crop-destroying pests.

Beyond growing food, the philosophy of sustainability also espouses broader principles that support the just treatment of farm workers and food pricing that provides the farmer with a livable income.

Overcoming Challenges

Critics of sustainable agriculture claim, among other things, that its methods result in lower crop yields and higher land use. They add that a wholesale commitment to its practices will mean inevitable food shortages for a world population expected to exceed 8 billion by the year 2030. With increased efficiency of sustainably farmed lands, advocates hold that sustainably farmed lands may be as productive as conventionally farmed ones.