Sustainable agriculture is a conundrum facing farmers today. Sustain can mean “suffer,” “strengthen and support,” “bear,” “confirm that something is just or valid,” or “keep going over time or continuously,” according to Oxford University Press definitions. It seems there’s a definition to justify any farming method, depending on your perspective.

The 1990 Farm Bill defined sustainable agriculture as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.” http://afsic.nal.usda.gov/tracing-evolution-organic-sustainable-agriculture-1

Sustainable practices are those that will allow enough food to be grown to meet our needs, and will do so while simultaneously protecting the natural resources – water, soil, air – that allow crops to grow, and to sustain life now and into the future, indefinitely. What those practices entail, however, is a bit harder to define.

Many conventional farmers who utilize synthetic crop protectants and fertilizers have embraced Integrated Pest ManagementPHOTO BY SJO/ISTOCK

Sustainable approaches

Often, certified organic and conventional agriculture are viewed as polar opposites. The underlying philosophies and perspectives on what practices are “sustainable” probably are different for each group. In reality, they can share overlapping practices – think low till, cover crops, and crop rotations – which unequivocally belong to the sustainable agriculture category. And certified organic producers can utilize some of the same types of crop protectants that conventional farmers do, although when and how they use these products can differ.

Conventional farmers may argue that the use of synthetic chemicals for fertilization or disease protection is the only way to achieve the yields of high-quality crops needed for market. They may believe that sustainable agriculture is more about the judicious use of these products, combined with other environmental protections put into place to alleviate any negative impacts that may result from production practices.

While USDA Certified Organic producers are required to follow regulations of the National Organics Program, many growers believe that the program allows practices that should not be permitted in a sustainable farming system. Others who grow without chemicals or intensive resource use feel that the rigors of organic certification aren’t necessary to prove that they grow in a sustainable manner.

No matter where one stands on the philosophy of sustainability, on-farm efforts to reduce the prevalence of soil erosion, water pollution, unhealthy soil microbiology, harm to wildlife and beneficial insects, or chemical usage are efforts towards sustainability. A look at some common sustainable farming methods of practice can shed light on both similarities and discrepancies to which differing approaches adhere while practicing sustainable agriculture.

IPM: Many conventional farmers who utilize synthetic crop protectants and fertilizers have embraced Integrated Pest Management as a means of targeting chemical use, reducing applications and toxicity of chemical sprays. According to the EPA:

“Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices. IPM programs use current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment. This information, in combination with available pest control methods, is used to manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment. http://www.epa.gov/opp00001/factsheets/ipm.htm

Tenets of IPM include scouting for pests; creating environments which reduce pest pressures; identifying a threshold level of tolerance; and utilizing the least risky practices of trapping or mating disruption first, advancing to targeted chemical sprays and avoiding broad-spectrum, nonspecific chemicals if at all possible.

Certified Organic: The tenets of organic farming are based on natural practices that promote crop health without sacrificing other aspects of the environment. Tools such as cover cropping, companion planting, beneficial insect establishment and promotion, and low or no-till cultivation are used to protect soil health while promoting crop growth. The 2002 National Organics Program (NOP) required farmers to become certified in order to use the “organic” label, and establishes permissible practices. According to the USDA:

“Organic agriculture produces products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics. USDA organic standards describe how farmers grow crops and raise livestock and which materials they may use. Organic farms and processors: preserve natural resources and biodiversity; support animal health and welfare; provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors; only use approved materials: do not use genetically modified ingredients; receive annual onsite inspections; separate organic food from non-organic food.”

http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=organic-agriculture.html

Biodynamic: Biodynamic farmers utilize natural practices to grow crops. They promote a “closed loop” system on the farm, where few if any outside inputs are needed in production practices. Animals, vegetables, minerals and the entire cosmos are all joined together in a “triple bottom line” approach in which social, environmental, and economic well-being are all incorporated into agricultural production. According to the Biodynamic Association:

“Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, gardens, food production and nutrition. Biodynamics was first developed in the early 1920s based on the spiritual insights and practical suggestions of the Austrian writer, educator and social activist Dr. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), whose philosophy is called “anthroposophy.” https://www.biodynamics.com/what-is-biodynamics

By integrating crops and livestock, promoting farm biodiversity, understanding the influences of the cosmos, and utilizing herbal-based preparations to promote resilience of the natural farming system, the biodynamic farm aims to be self-sustaining. This holistic approach treats the farm as a living organism, with all aspects of the environment, people, crops, and animals carefully sustained. GMOs, as well as synthetic chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers, are not allowed. Biodynamic farms are certified by Demeter USA.

Certified Naturally Grown: An alternative to Certified Organics, this nonprofit certifying agency adheres to the tenets of organic agriculture and uses a farmer-to-farmer certification and education approach. When the NOP was put in place in 2002, farmers who didn’t have the resources or desire to become certified under the program could no longer call themselves “organic.” The rules are based on NOP standards.

“Certified Naturally Grown is a Grassroots Alternative to the USDA’s National Organic Program meant primarily for small farmers distributing through local channels – farmer’s markets, roadside stands, local restaurants, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs and small local grocery stores – the farmers that make up your local landscape! https://www.naturallygrown.org/about-cng/brief-history-of-certified-naturally-grown

Holistic Management International: This organization is built on promoting the environmental, social and economic viability of the farm. Four cornerstone tenets of Holistic Management are financial planning; grazing planning; land planning; and biological monitoring. While much of the focus is on utilizing animals to manage soil health, holistic management is also concerned with food crop production.

“Whether land is used for ranching, food production or public land conservation, its health can be improved and its productivity greatly increased without large infusions of cash, equipment or technology. Holistic Management is a dynamic system, and in the truest sense, holistic – it can be evolved to incorporate new sustainable farming/ranching management and production techniques. (i.e., permaculture, organic methods, low stress animal handling, wildlife management, keyline plow, etc.) Advances in management techniques can be incorporated as well (i.e., marketing, business, and financial planning).” http://holisticmanagement.org/holistic-management

PHOTOS BY RAYLIPSCOMBE & BEYHAN YAZAR/ISTOCK

Controversy

Sustainability agriculture does have to do with the overall reduction of negative environmental impacts from the raising of crops. But some tools for reducing negative impacts are controversial, even if they do assist in alleviating problems caused by intensive agricultural practices.

For many, sustainable farming is a low-input farming, where the resources used in crop production are primarily produced on the farm. Incorporating large, expensive equipment may not fit into the concept. Others might argue that any practice that allows the farmer to reduce the use of chemicals, or utilize less fuel, while increasing yield and promoting crop health has a place in sustainable farming.

While utilizing precision technology can reduce water waste, promote targeted chemical application and allow farmers to reduce inputs in crop production, it is also controversial. The high cost of the technology, and the continued dependence of farmers on nonrenewable fuel, large equipment and synthetic inputs is not viewed as sustainable in many segments of the agricultural community.

Biopesticides, which must have a nontoxic mode of action and not utilize biochemical reactions to kill pests, can be approved for certified organic use, when derived from all natural active and inactive ingredients. Biopesticides are defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as “certain types of pesticides derived from such natural materials as animals, plants, bacteria, and certain minerals.” Their use has increased fourfold between 2000 and 2012. http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/biopesticides/whatarebiopesticides.htm

The EPA considers biopesticides less harmful than synthetic chemical pesticides, with less potential for adverse environmental and human health consequences. The EPA divides biopesticides into three categories: biochemical, microbial, and plant-incorporated. Plant-based biopesticides include genetically modified crops.

Genetically modified crops are highly controversial. But advocates will argue that the use of such crops has allowed them to drastically reduce chemical inputs, and is more sustainable than the repeated spraying needed otherwise.

A sustainable agricultural system includes environmental protection, promotes a reduction of nonrenewable resource use, generates a viable farm economy, provides community quality-of-life enhancement, and uses natural practices to promote crop health and yield. By meeting the needs for food as well as for environmental well-being, and by building a food system that provides a living for farmers and food for all members of a community, advocates of sustainable farming see the picture as an integrated whole.

Sustainable agriculture is a movement towards a more natural method of farming, one which leaves less damage in its wake than the current conventional or industrial agriculture model. Enhancing the environment’s health to promote optimal crop growth, rather than enhancing a crop’s production with the least expense to the environment’s well-being, may be the deciding and subtle factor that will ultimately guide the sustainable agricultural movement as it matures.

COVER PHOTO BY VALENTINRUSSANOV/ISTOCK