Lots of companies talk about it, but what is sustainable farming? In this article, we break down what the term actually means, and how you can spot products which make use of sustainable farming practices.August 03, 2021 12:10 pm August 06, 2021 11:50 am
What is sustainable farming?
Let’s start with the term itself. What does sustainable farming actually entail?
There are a few different definitions circulating. However, the consensus is that sustainable farming is all about meeting the global demand for food while taking steps to protect the natural environment.
It has gained more attention recently, as the fight against climate change has gathered more momentum. Climate activists have pointed at the way we grow our food as a major contributor to global warming, and are demanding change to farming methods.
Sustainable farming can involve a whole variety of different techniques and priorities, depending on factors like the geographical region and the type of food being produced.
However, they all aim to maintain the yield of food while reducing its impact on the environment.
What are the problems with modern farming?
Before we get into the methods we can use to make agriculture more sustainable, it’s important to understand what the issues are with the farming methods we use today.
1. Going global
Before the dawn of modern industrial farming, food was grown on a much smaller and more local level. However, technology has allowed us to manipulate the environment to produce and distribute food on a global level.
At the same time, demand for out of season foods means that suppliers often import items like fruit and vegetables from other countries.
This means that much of the food we eat has travelled miles and miles, and used up untold resources, before it even gets to us. Many foods now come with a carbon footprint, and thanks to complicated infrastructure, it’s very difficult to find out the environmental impact of our food choices.
2. Rising demand
We’re a growing population; more of us means a higher demand for food.
At the moment, around 50% of the habitable land in the world is taken up with growing food.(1)
But we’re also changing the way we eat, in ways that are bad for our own health as well as for the environment. Rather than minimally processed whole foods which we make from scratch ourselves, we now rely heavily on processed and pre-made foods.
One rather horrifying statistic states that 72.1% of the daily energy consumed by Americans comes from dairy, cereals, refined sugar and vegetable oils, and alcohol.(2)
This is a far cry from the days when people would eat produce made on local farms or even in their own gardens. Not only do we have much less information about how our food is grown, but many of these products contain ingredients which are grown using environmentally damaging methods.
3. Meat and dairy
Similarly, industrial agriculture has allowed us to make products such as meat and dairy on an enormous scale. We worked out that factory farming would allow us to produce a lot of meat in a very small space, while feeding animals with specially designed foods would increase the yield of their meat and milk.
Unfortunately, meat and dairy production is extremely inefficient, polluting, and takes up a lot of space and resources.
The FAO estimates that 14.5% of global emissions come from the meat and dairy industries.(3)
Meanwhile, for every 100 calories of human-edible crops given to livestock, we humans access only 17-30 calories in the form of meat and milk.(4) In terms of efficiency, we’d be a lot better off simply eating the grain ourselves!
4. Damaging the ecosystem
Under pressure to produce more food at a lower price, farmers have turned to agricultural methods which increase yield but damage the environment.
One example is the use of chemical pesticides. Rachel Carson’s famous book ‘Silent Spring’ showed the disastrous effect on the environment of pesticides, leading to a ban of DDT.(5) However many chemical pesticides are still in regular use to grow non-organic foods.
These can kill insects which prop up their ecosystem and the other wildlife within it. In fact, many environmentalists are deeply concerned about the decline in the bee population, which has been ravaged by pesticides such as neonicotinoids.(6)
We need bees to pollinate our crops; their loss would be devastating to our ability to grow food. The UK has just reversed a decision to ban neonicotinoids.(7)
5. Growing monocultures and decreasing biodiversity
Other methods fall into this category, too. For example, producers often plant monocultures in their fields to produce as much of one crop as possible.
However, natural wildlife depends on biodiversity, and planting only one type of crop can damage the local ecosystem.
This happens a lot with palm oil production, where sections of rainforest are removed to make space for vast areas of palm plants where nothing else can live.(8)
"Many environmentalists are deeply concerned about the decline in the bee population, which has been ravaged by pesticides such as neonicotinoids."
How to grow our food more sustainably
Many farmers are now tackling these issues by using different methods to produce food.
1. Going organic
Organic farmers do not use any form of chemical pesticides to grow their crops or rear their livestock.
However, they still face the problem of how to protect the food they grow from pests.
Luckily, there are methods to control the pest population without the need for chemicals. These include introducing a predatory species to the area or timing the planting of the crop so that they’re strong enough to withstand the pests.
This means that more of the crop survives but the pests remain in the ecosystem, minimising disruption.
2. Using agroforestry, intercropping and crop rotation
Agroforestry is the practice of growing trees in the same area as crops. It increases productivity, but also has benefits for the environment.
For example, it helps trap carbon, encourages biodiversity and protects against flooding and weather damage. The trees often produce harvestable products themselves such as nuts or apples, too.(9)
Meanwhile intercropping, or companion cropping, involves growing several different types of crop together in the same space.
This encourages biodiversity too, as it provides a more varied habitat for different species. It can also help to regenerate soil which has been exhausted of nutrients.(10)
Many farmers also use crop rotation, which means they grow their crops in different fields each year. They may also let the land lie ‘fallow’ for a period, or grow a non-harvestable plant there, such as clover.
This is a nitrogen-fixing plant which helps add nitrates back into the soil so that crops can grow better the following year.
3. Encouraging biodiversity
As well as providing a more varied crops for little creatures to live in, many farmers are also making use of the space they do not normally grow crops in.
For example, they might include a wildflower patch which attracts and supports pollinators like bees. A larger number of insects attracts birds, and so on up the chain.
Keeping farms biodiverse also means that other animals are not forced out of their natural habitats by monoculture farming.
It’s important to remember that farms themselves support entire ecosystems, right down to the microscopic bacteria in the soil. Scientists believe that increased diversity in the bacteria living in the soil leads to increased productivity in plants.(11)
Removing one element of this complicated web can damage the whole system.
However, on the other side of the coin, a complex ecosystem can also protect against serious problems such as disease and climate change. If only one type of crop is grown, it may be decimated by a single disease or spell of extreme weather, whereas a diverse range of plants and wildlife is more likely to (collectively) be able to withstand these events.
4. Using resources wisely
Just as in the olden days, many farmers are returning to methods which make efficient use of the natural resources at their disposal. Perhaps the best example of this is using water wisely.
Many people who are trying to reduce their impact on the environment switch from dairy to plant-based milks, such as almond milk. However, 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California, USA, which is an extremely hot and dry environment.
This seems a crazy choice when you know that it takes 6,098 litres of water to produce a single litre of almond milk.(12)
Sustainable farming methods encourage farmers to plant crops which are suitable for their region and climate, and which make the best of both. This reduces the need for such massive irrigation, and the environmental cost involved.
Meanwhile, farmers can also make the most of natural resources by capturing and storing rainfall to irrigate their crops. Alternatively, they may choose plants which grow well in the regional climate without too much help.
What you can do
Thanks to the complex infrastructure involved in our food production, eating sustainably can seem incredibly complicated.
However, there are a few simple things you can do to support sustainable agriculture and make sure that your own food is as sustainable as possible.
1. Support local, organic farms and brands
Firstly, support local organic farms. Look for companies which celebrate sustainable farming methods and encouraging biodiversity. Many of these producers will be (rightly) proud of their efforts to be more sustainable and have good reason to shout about it.
For example, Yeo Valley uses organic farming methods and only renewable energy, while encouraging people to shop local and reduce waste. Meanwhile, Belvoir drinks gets the whole community involved in its annual elderflower harvest, carefully protecting local biodiversity throughout.
Of course – all of Erbology’s products are sustainably-sourced from small, independent organic farms.
2. Shop in season
Try to shop in season as much as you can, as out-of-season produce in the supermarket will have been flown in from abroad.
For those of us who have grown up eating supermarket produce, it can be tricky to figure out what is in season and when.
Luckily, the BBC offers this handy calendar of when produce is in season in the UK.
3. Reduce waste
Part of the reason we need to produce so much food is that we waste an astonishing amount of it. Globally, we waste about a third of all the food we produce.
Predictably, rich countries are the worst offenders. We waste 222 million tonnes of food a year, which is equivalent to the entire food production capacity of sub-Saharan Africa.
With the population ever-rising, this is only going to increase – unless we make a serious effort to reduce food waste.
Love Food Hate Waste has some great tips for how to avoid wasting food at home, including recipes for often-wasted foods, storage tips and shopping guides.
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