What is sustainable agriculture and why is it so important today? To be sustainable, agriculture must cover the food and textile needs of present and future generations at prices that are reasonable for consumers and sufficient to maintain the economy of the agricultural sector without endangering the health of the environment or the quantity of natural resources. .
We can say that sustainable agriculture is an agricultural production system that conserves resources, is environmentally sound and economically viable. Sustainable agriculture stems from the need to develop alternative agricultural systems that are more in line with the needs of today’s society, which demands more sustainable forms of production that are less aggressive to the environment, and that are socially and economically acceptable.
The Application Of Sustainability In Agriculture
The concept of sustainable agriculture can be defined as a system of ecological agricultural practices based on scientific innovations through which it is possible to produce healthy food with respectful practices for the soil, air, water, and respecting the rights and health of farmers.
Sustainable agriculture seeks to satisfy human needs for healthy food through the following basic principles: improving the quality of the environment, preserving natural resources, efficient use of agricultural resources and non-renewable energy sources, adaptation to natural biological cycles, as well as support for rural economic development and the quality of life of farmers.
To achieve sustainable agriculture, farmers must:
- Anticipate changes: recognize, accept, plan and act accordingly.
- Recognize and identify resources and limitations: create strategies to use resources and overcome limitations.
- Maximize quality in all stages of agricultural activity, not settle for products or services of suboptimal quality.
- Bear in mind that sustainable farms are first and foremost businesses, in which profits made can be reinvested internally or for other social or environmental goals.
- Assume the necessary risks, incur acceptable debts and invest considering opportunities and difficulties, both in the medium and long term.
From Common Principles to Common Practices
Sustainable systems try to make the best use of environmental products and services without damaging them, adapting to the region and adjusting to the place. Recent empirical evidence shows that successful initiatives and projects in the field of sustainable agriculture arise from changes in factors in agricultural production (for example, substitution of fertilizers by nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants; of chemical pesticides by “pesticides” natural; plowed by zero tillage).
A better concept than extensive is one that focuses on resource intensification, making better and sustainable use of existing resources (eg land, water, biodiversity) and technologies.
The essential steps to achieve sustainable agriculture are:
- Integrate biological and ecological processes, such as nutrition cycles, nitrogen fixation , soil regeneration, allelopathy, competition, predation, and parasitism, with food production processes.
- Minimize the use of non-renewable methods that cause a negative impact on the environment, on the health of farmers and food consumers.
- Take advantage of the knowledge and skills of farmers, reinforcing their human capital and their independence from third parties, thus avoiding such costs;
- Harnessing the ability of people to work together to solve common agricultural and natural resource problems, such as pests, ditches, irrigation, etc.
Sustainable Agriculture Models
The four models of sustainable agriculture (organic farming, biodynamic farming, permaculture and integrated production) have the same goal: till the land while conserving natural ecosystems. All these models of sustainable agriculture have arisen as a result of the serious environmental impact of conventional agriculture, such as the reduction of insects in crops, which seriously affects agricultural production. Today sustainable farming techniques are a good alternative to conventional farming.
Organic farming is the best known and most widespread model of sustainable agriculture in Europe, and can even be considered the basis of the other models. Its main characteristics are:
the exclusive use of sustainable farming practices that help preserve soil biodiversity and prevent its devastation;
- the prohibition of the use of fertilizers and phytosanitary products of chemical origin;
- crop rotation and contribution of organic matter for the conservation of soil fertility ;
- the use of natural “pesticides” to combat pests and weeds.
Biodynamic sustainable agriculture is based on the interaction between soil, nutrients, microorganisms, animals and crops , and the energetic relationships between these elements. The word biodynamic has Greek origin and means “science that studies the vital forces of life”. This model of sustainable agriculture stems from the anthroposophy theory developed by Rudolf Steiner at the beginning of the 20th century.
This model of sustainable agriculture is characterized by the use of specific compounds of animal and plant origin prepared over months, and taking into account astronomical cycles for planting, tillage, maintenance and harvest.
Permaculture, or permanent sustainable agriculture, arises in Australia by observing the rich interrelationships in the forest ecosystem. Its main objective is to adjust as much as possible to nature, just as the indigenous peoples did for centuries, it would also lead to sustainable and more efficient agriculture.
Its main characteristics are:
- the study of the land where the crop is located to determine the organisms that inhabit it during the year;
- the distribution of crops so that these interrelationships are carried out;
- the multifunctional and sustainable use of the elements, making the most of the interrelationships;
- the coverage of each function with more than one element, thus increasing safety in case of failure;
- the realization of the minimum effort to obtain the maximum yield;
- the efficient use of free resources of nature, such as temperature or slope changes.
Integrated production appeared at the end of the 20th century due to evidence of the negative impact of conventional agriculture, for example the harmful effects of the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and herbicides that until then had been used in an uncontrolled manner for years. Integrated production as the model of sustainable agriculture combines biological control methods (the use of living organisms) to control diseases and pests together with the use of traditional agricultural techniques, based on the use of agrochemicals.
Sustainability Assessment Indicators
To assess the level of sustainable agriculture we must start with the functions of the land that are different and include: production; maintenance of environmental biodiversity; climate regulation; control of deposition and movement of surface and groundwater; warehouse for raw products and minerals for human use; pollution and waste control; provision of physical space for housing; archiving or heritage; provision of connective spaces.
The qualities and limitations of each plot are based on the functions mentioned above. The evaluation of the sustainable quality of any land must use the methods to measure the capacity of this parcel to achieve the objective function. The main objectives of these indicators are the following :
- On the one hand, the preservation of natural resources (water, air, soil, biodiversity, landscape and mining resources);
- On the other hand, the social values that are characteristic of a certain degree of socialization and implicit in sustainable agriculture (ethics, social awareness, etc.)
Let’s focus on the objectives that form three scales of sustainability.
Agroecological Sustainability Scale
This scale analyzes the propensity of the technical system to combine the efficient use of the environment with the lowest possible ecological cost. This first sustainable scale includes indicators of sustainable agriculture that show the capacity of farms to be more or less autonomous in relation to the use of energy and non-renewable materials and to generate more or less pollution.
- Agricultural practices;
- Organization of space;
This scale of sustainable agriculture is characterized by the integration of the farm within its territory and society. It seeks to evaluate the quality of life of the farmer and the importance of the market services provided in the territory and to society. In this sense, it allows us to analyze issues that go beyond the farm itself.
- Quality of products and land;
- employment and services;
- Ethics and human development.
The last scale of sustainable agriculture, in which the indicators come from the technical and financial observations of the productive system, analyzes the economic results looking beyond the short term and the ups and downs of the economic situation.
- Transferability of independence;
- Economic viability;
- Efficiency of sustainable agriculture.
Natural and Agricultural Resources
Sustainable agriculture can be treated as an approach to agriculture from the point of view of ecosystems, hence one of its main objectives, which is to preserve the natural resources of the planet for future generations. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this approach. Defining the most valuable resources such as water, soil, land, energy and air, we will try to specify the problems of each and the possible solutions of sustainable agriculture using the technology mentioned above.
Most of the agricultural land requires artificial irrigation due to the lack of rain. For irrigation to be sustainable, it is important to meet the following objectives: avoid salinization and soil contamination, reduce the use of inputs; use less water than can be replenished naturally; prevent the destruction of riparian habitats within watersheds. Through the use of remote sensing tools, flooded areas can be quickly identified, thus avoiding crop losses and managing sustainable irrigation appropriately. All the necessary data on water consumption, soil moisture level or irrigation system failures can be obtained using the satellite images in the application that helps sustainable agriculture,LandViewer .
The intensive agricultural practices of recent decades have a devastating impact on soil quality . They reduce the level of carbon, accelerate climate change, damage soil structure, crop growth and ecosystem functioning. To prevent further degradation, applicable sustainable agriculture soil management techniques should include no-till farming, keyline design, windbreaks to reduce wind erosion, reconsidering the use of chemical fertilizers, and protecting the soil from water runoff.
Another problem of organic sustainable agriculture is the excessive use of phosphorus inputs that leads to eutrophication and depletion of soil fertility. Ways to avoid unintended consequences include the use of rock phosphate, which is a natural element of some soils, and the implementation of inoculants such as phosphate-solubilizing microorganisms. The reflected energy is measured in spectral bands beyond visible light (infrared, thermal, etc.), which can be used separately or combined in order to know the exact phenological state of the crops to apply the appropriate amount of inputs.
Urban development, landscape changes, decreased biodiversity, erosion and soil degradation are considered the main threats. Through our LandViewer application it is possible to monitor future impacts and alterations resulting from land use and reach sustainable agriculture.
Currently agriculture, including sustainable agriculture, relies heavily on the use of fuel and non-renewable energy resources. The only way to overcome this dependence is the use of sustainable “energy-smart” agricultural systems, to seek a transition towards renewable energies. One of the most promising initiatives in this field is sustainable irrigation using solar energy, developed by Pakistani scientists.
Practically all agricultural activities pollute the air with dust, with smoke from stubble burning, with traces of pesticides, with nitrous oxide emissions while nitrogen-based fertilizers are applied, as well as from the use of fossil fuels during transport and harvest. Some of the measures to improve air quality in sustainable agriculture include the use of crop residues instead of fertilizers for the soil, the determination of appropriate levels of tillage, the installation of windbreaks, the use of crops under cover and the selection of perennial grasses.
There is no single sustainable strategy that meets all the requirements, each practice has its own characteristics and advantages, therefore the choice has to be well thought out depending on each situation and the terrain in question. The basic practices of sustainable agriculture are:
- Crop rotation and promotion of diversity with the aim of obtaining the healthiest soil and the best pest control;
- Use cover crops to prevent erosion, replenish nutrients in the soil, and decrease the need for herbicides;
- Reduction of tillage level or its complete cancellation to avoid soil loss;
The use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to control pest populations and minimize the application of chemical pesticides;
- Smart and sustainable integration of agricultural and animal production;
- Agroforestry practices, or the set of trees and shrubs to provide shade and shelter for crops.
There is now a wide range of programs designed to help the farmer perform different types of high-quality analysis more easily and efficiently. To keep up with the fast pace of technological progress our developers have recently launched the digital agro-platform EOS Crop Monitoring for effective farm management and approach to more sustainable agriculture.
Advantages of Sustainable Agriculture
The most common argument against sustainable agriculture is that it cannot “feed the world” due to soil control and crop management. But let’s consider the advantages of sustainable farming strategy.
The destructive influence of sustainable agriculture on the environment is minimal, since it tries to conserve and use the least harmful technologies and methods. Sustainable farms do not use chemical pesticides, genetically modified fertilizers or seeds, antibiotics for animals, nor do they generate toxic amounts of non-recyclable waste. All these factors have a positive influence on public health and the cultivation process is safer for farmers and the food produced is healthier.
Sustainable agriculture also promotes and supports animal welfare. Farmers raise their animals in near-natural conditions to reduce stress, pain, disease, and suffering in livestock. The social aspect of sustainable agriculture involves rethinking family farms and rural communities. Combined with other strategies, sustainable agriculture can help increase the level of employment, education, health, as well as how to cover cultural and spiritual needs