Monday, 24 September 2012

Sustainable Agriculture - what it is and how you can support it

When most people think of sustainable agriculture they think of agriculture that is less harmful to the environment - while you can’t have sustainable agriculture that isn’t environmentally sustainable, there can certainly be much more to it.  Sustainable agriculture is agriculture that is practiced in a way that doesn’t impact future generations’ ability to grow food.  In order for this to happen, practices used must be sustainable in all of three categories:  Environmental, Social, and Economic. 

Environmental Sustainability

Agriculture is heavily reliant on the environment in order to be productive - a healthy environment will produce more food as well as maintaining reserves of wildlife and native plant species. 

There are endless opportunities for improving environmental sustainability in agriculture.  Innovation continues to improve upon unsustainable methods, replacing them with newer, sounder practices – or, in some cases, leading us to old methods that can be adapted for modern agriculture.

Here are a few ways that agricultural facilities can improve their environmental sustainability:

Soil amendments and cover crops: Healthy soil doesn’t require as many chemical inputs.  Adding organic matter to soil, such as compost or manure, adds nutrients and roughage without the chemicals.  As well, certain cover crops can add nutrients to the soil, such as nitrogen-fixing clover.

Wildlife habitat: Preserving sensitive habitats (such as fish-bearing streams) and breaking up cultivated areas with wildlife reserves can help to minimize farming’s effects on wildlife populations.  Protecting habitat can be as simple as setting up a fence to keep cattle out of a stream. Hedgerows can provide valuable bird habitat.

Non-renewable energy inputs: Sometimes it’s unavoidable to use non-renewable energy sources or other non-farm inputs, but whenever possible, farming should be a closed energy loop.  Everything used on the farm should be from the farm.  For example, manure from dairy cows can be used to fertilize the corn that the same animals will be eating. 

Integrated Pest Management (IPM): Integrated pest management is a different way of looking at controlling agricultural pests.  Instead of using a pesticide, farmers seek out other, often inventive, ways of dealing with pests.  The best known IPM strategy is the use of ladybugs to control aphids.  Native ladybug species are purchased and released into fields, where they prey upon plant-destroying aphids.  No pesticides are necessary.

In British Columbia, farmers can create an Environmental Farm Plan with the help of the BC Agricultural Council and the BC Agricultural Research and Development Corporation.  Farmers that complete the program can even be eligible for funding to help implement the plan on their farms.

Social Sustainability

Social sustainability refers to how easily a farmer coexists with their neighbours and other stakeholders in the area.  Simple consideration of neighbours and socially sustainable farming practices will help to ensure the farmer will be able to stay farming.

Light pollution: Greenhouse facilities and other practices can produce a lot of light, and can keep neighbours up at night.  Usually, the solution is as simple as blinds for the interior of the greenhouse.

Noise pollution: Certain agricultural practices can be very noisy, such as propane sound cannons for bird control in blueberry fields.  Using sound-free methods is best when it’s possible.

Visual Pollution: A tidy farm enterprise is more pleasant for everyone involved!  Sometimes this means keeping the farm property clear, and sometimes it means keeping shellfish aquaculture floats out of sightlines from the ritzy hotel.

Cultural Sensitivity:  When agricultural endeavors are near to or on top of land that may be culturally sensitive, extra care should be taken.  For example, in certain areas Canadian First Nations People may forage for certain plants on Crown land.  Cattle should be excluded from grazing in areas where culturally sensitive plants are growing at prime foraging times.

Animal ethics: Animal welfare is becoming a priority for many people.  Farmers who wish to ensure their animals are treated in an ethical way can now enroll in programs such as the BCSPCA Certified Program.

Economic Sustainability

Farmers must make money to keep farming -it’s as simple as that.  Any business that doesn’t make money is one that won’t last long.  Sometimes sustainability is a balancing act between social or environmental sustainability and economic sustainability.  In order to maintain high standards in other categories of sustainability,

Secondary sources of income: A secondary source of income will give farmers the padding they need in order to make the right decisions for environmental and social sustainability on their farm.  The income source could be another job, renting out portions of the property, agritourism, anything!

Labour costs: Unfortunately, labour costs for a lot of sustainable practices are higher than their unsustainable counterparts.  Farmers can help to offset these costs by using Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOFers.  WWOOFers travel from all over the world to work on organic farms in return for room and board while they are working.  It’s a great opportunity to see new countries and meet new people.

Marketing costs:  Marketing costs can seem daunting, especially for a small enterprise.  Forming a farm co-operative and sharing costs can help the small farmer get ahead.  A farm co-operative could even help share other costs, if all the farms in it work together!

Organics and Sustainability

Just because a food is labeled “Organic” doesn’t mean it’s sustainable.  Organic crops can still be produced in an unsustainable manner, or shipped in from unsustainable distances.  Here are a few things you can do to help make sure your produce is as sustainable as possible:

Buy local and seasonal.  Produce that is grown in your area requires lower inputs to get to the store/farmers’ market/restaurant, and by buying seasonal produce you’re more likely to get produce that’s local.

Know your certifying bodies.  Each piece of organic produce is certified, and each certifying body has different regulations about what makes the produce organic.  By having a general idea which bodies have regulations to ensure sustainable and ethical practices, you can make educated decisions while shopping.  In British Columbia, check out the Certified Organic Association of BC.

Meet your farmer.  The best way to educate your self is to talk to the farmer!  Buy farm-gate produce or shop at farmers’ markets whenever it’s possible.  Ask the farmer how they grow their crops.  The farmers that are passionate about sustainable practices will enthusiastically share their knowledge.

Sources: EPAHobby FarmsHume SeedsFriday Design,Ban The CannonsNRCSAgritourismFarmers MarketLocal FarmingMarket VegetablesAgroecology: Ecological Processes in Sustainable Agriculture.  Stephen R. Gliessman, Eric Engles, Robin Krieger, Ann Arbor Press, 2000

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Back To School - the green way!

It’s that time of the year again - a brand new start of the school year for students and their parents!­ Take this opportunity to introduce some new practices into your daily life that can be more environmentally friendly. You may even be able to save costs by switching to more effective and green alternatives for the start of the new school year!

Green Transportation

Reducing your carbon footprint and making healthy choices

To really make a difference and reduce your impact on the environment, beginning this fall, do your best to reduce the amount you drive your kids to and from school. One popular way is to enroll your children into a bus program. School buses reduce a great amount of emissions, especially if it’s a newer bus that is up to date with the current emission-reducing standards. There’s also the possibility of carpool – either one of your neighbours can start carpooling kids from your neighbourhood or you can start your own carpool. 

If your school does not offer a bus program, or if you just live nearby, get your children to ride their bike or walk to school! A co-op walk team can help keep your kids safe by having groups walk together and alternating parent escorts if needed. 

Eco Supplies

Taking inventory and reusing what you can

Before deciding to go out and buy brand new school supplies for your children, take some time to look at what you’re currently have and see if anything can be reused. Why buy new pens and pencils when the old ones are still usable?  No need to buy a new notebook just because a few pages have been used in one from last year, or buying a new pencil case because the old one is out of style. Making smart, economical decisions can go a long way in saving your money and reducing production and waste emissions that comes from purchasing new supplies.

If your children get hungry or thirsty, its better that they reach for a reusable water bottle and plastic container instead of a disposable plastic water bottle and plastic ziplock bag. Either plastic or aluminum, reusable water bottles make for a much better alternative. Visit Good Housekeeping to read the list of some of the best water bottles around. Also, make sure that any water bottle purchased for reuse is BPA-free (Bisphenol A). There are also alternatives to plastic containers, such as SnackTAXI, who offer reusable food sacks. One “snack-sack” can reduce the use of about 1000 plastic bags over its lifetime.

Buying new eco-friendly school supplies

When you have looked over what you have and you’ve decided that you still need some more school supplies, try to lean towards the greener alternative. Many major retailers are carrying recycled and renewable school supplies such as recycled notebooks, paper and binders, and biodegradable pencils. Paper Mate is offering biodegradable pencils that are offered at many major retailers, such as Staples. There is also Ecojot, who offer notebooks, journals, sketchbooks, and more made entirely from post-consumer waste. When looking for a new backpack, look for an environmentally as well as child friendly backpack, one that’s made from recycled material and is padded to prevent back pain. You can check out The Ultimate Green Store or Ecocentric Bags for an idea on some cool backpacks being offered.

Most of the money spent on supplies will be towards new clothes that children are always in need of. If your kids don’t mind, wearing hand-me-down clothing from friends and family or thrift stores can be one of the ways to save money and reduce your emissions. If your children are style-conscious, there are many popular brands like Adidas, Levi’s and H&M that offer clothes made from more eco-friendly material.

The most important thing to consider is that your children must understand and be educated on the importance of the environment and that even the little things can go a long way in sustaining our planet.

Little Steps

Go with what you know

Going green doesn't always have to mean big changes, sticking to some basic principals can make a big difference in little ways! REDUCE, REUSE, & RECYCLE every way you can. 

For more suggestions on going green with kids visit some of our other articles:

Or check out the following links for more resources: