You may have heard the word “sustainability” used quite often over the last few years, but what does it mean? Read on to learn what sustainable agriculture is, and how our everyday decisions can make a lasting impact on future generations.
What is Sustainable Agriculture?
Sustainable agriculture is somewhat of an umbrella term used to group several food-related topics under one roof. Sustainable agriculture is a method of producing foods in such a way so that it is mindful of the ecosystem; including but not limited to environmentally friendly practices, health of humans and animals, economic profitability, respects animal welfare, and promotes social and economic equity through fair wages.
Sustainable vs. Industrial
With the many food labels scattered across grocery shelves, it becomes all the more important to understand what sustainable farming is, and what it is not. Since there isn’t a legal definition or rules, a farm’s way of practicing sustainable agriculture may vary.
As you now know, part of sustainable agriculture may include respecting animal welfare. Yet when food shopping, it can be easy to mistaken “cage-free” eggs to be sustainable. While the chicken may not have lived in cages, they may have been raised in overcrowded indoor farms. Today, most of our meat supply is produced on factory farms, otherwise known as Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). CAFOs are industrial facilities where animals are raised in confined areas for mass production. Since the animals are raised in tight quarters, they are often mutilated to adapt to the living conditions, i.e. often chickens are de-beaked. Caged animals are restricted from moving, confined for their entire lives until slaughter. Due to the large scale of animals living in an enclosed area, the result is poor and unsanitary conditions. The method in which factory farms dispose of animal waste also ends up in run off, contaminating our water system. Moreover, with factory farming and mass production came the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, hormone use and development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria—the list goes on and on.
Sustainable agriculture is important because every action we take and every decision we make can protect the planet.
- Recycle manure as fertilizer – this helps eliminate pollution in air and water systems and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers
- Controlled use of antibiotics – animals are not given antibiotics on a daily basis but only when they are sick (animal products labeled organic are not labeled organic if they have been treated with antibiotics)
- Animal welfare – animals are respected and treated humanely
- Energy – they tend to save energy and decrease use of fossil fuels by using techniques like crop rotation to naturally enhance the soil
- Food miles – sustainably grown foods are usually sold locally which not only cuts down on gas pollution, but the result is healthier and tastier food
- Build Community – supporting local business help drive the local economy not only in terms of profits, but by providing jobs and building community rapport
These are just a few examples of how sustainable farming affects the planet. For more information on how sustainable farming compares to industrial farming, check out Sustainable Table.
Certified Organic, Not Certified Sustainable
Many people often confuse the terms “sustainable agriculture” with “organic farming.” Although both have to do with sensible food production methods, sustainable agriculture doesn’t always mean organic and organic farming doesn’t always mean sustainable practices!
A product labeled as organic means that the food was produced without the use of certain chemicals, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified organisms. Organic meats, poultry, eggs and dairy products mean that it comes from farms where the animals were not raised with antibiotics or growth hormones.
While many farms that are certified-organic do not produce foods with certain chemicals, antibiotics, growth hormones, etc., the food may still be produced on an industrial farm setting. For example, some farms that produce organic dairy products still confine cows in CAFOs. For many large corporations that are certified-organic, it is through industrial farming that they are able to drive down consumer prices. Although they are able to meet minimum requirements that allow them to be USDA certified-organic, the farm may disregard animal welfare, denying animals space to carry out their natural behaviors (which can also result to poor health and unsanitary conditions!) Therefore, if you are looking to support sustainable agriculture, it is important to keep in mind that organic can — but doesn’t always mean sustainable.
On the other hand, some sustainable farms that are not certified-organic by the USDA do produce organic foods. In order for a product to be labeled “USDA certified-organic,” it must have gone through a national certification process, which requires both additional time and money. The additional fees can make it difficult for small farmers to receive organic-certification by the USDA. In turn, grassroot organizations like Oregon Tilth, California Certified Organic Farmers, Demeter Certified Biodynamic provide less costly organic-certification that either follow USDA organic standards guidelines or have their own strict production standards.
If you prefer organic foods and wish to support sustainable agriculture, the good news is that there are farms who do produce organic foods and practice sustainable agriculture. When in doubt, try buying directly from a local farmer. The best way to find out if your food is organic and sustainable is to ask! To find the closest sustainable farm near you, check out U.S. Department of Agriculture and LocalHarvest.
A Circle of Responsibility
While there are a myriad of reasons why one may practice sustainable agriculture, a big part of sustainability is being aware of how current practices can affect our food chain and how making a simple change, while small, is still a step towards a more sustainable future. Now that you know what sustainable agriculture is, here are some of the ways you can join the circle of responsibility:
Always Ask – Whether you’re dining out or grocery shopping, you have the right to know how your food was produced. Let restaurants and stores know that you care about where your foods come from.
Buy Local – As consumers, we help voice our opinion by a show of what we buy and who we choose to buy from. You don’t have to make a 360 degree change in order to make an impact. Start by shopping at a farmer’s market to support your local farmers’ sustainable methods or by buying one or two foods that are organic.
Read – Action is best backed by knowledge! Learn more and stay informed on the latest news and food policies. Visit Sustainable Table, CivilEats, or U.S. Department of Agriculture to learn more about the food system, issues and current events.
Get Involved –Tell your family and friends all you have learned about this exciting movement. Invite them to visit farmer’s market with you, to enjoy a sustainably cooked meal, or plan to have a “Meatless Monday.”
Think Before You Buy – Everything we purchase can leave a carbon footprint. Buying less than what you think you need means less waste.