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