How Do We Achieve "Sustainable"?
These past few months I have been exploring the production of food in the United States (if you haven’t read them already, check out The Story of Soil and The Harmful Effects of Conventional Practices from previous newsletters). So far, I have delved into the history of agriculture and its transformation to a modern, industrial model. I have laid out the negative effects of conventional farming, from a lack of farmer autonomy to environmental degradation. Now, I will focus on an alternative system.
Farming, like other developments made for human comfort and convenience, could be considered unnatural in all forms. Clearing thousands of acres of trees and brush in once-ecologically diverse, thriving forests and planting rows of certain crops is quite contrary to the natural way of things. As Sir Albert Howard observed, this practice of “collecting a specified seed and sowing it in a specified area” is a “definite interference from Nature’s habits.” Nature, unlike humans, does not “collect her plants, the same plants, in one spot and practice monoculture.” Rather, her methods are more random as she disperses seeds in a completely unmanaged setting. But Howard’s remarks do not suggest we should revert to hunter-gatherers and give up agriculture entirely. Instead, the goal in creating that reliable and controlled supply of food should be to inflict the least amount of environmental damage – even benefit the environment – by mimicking nature as much as possible. How do we accomplish this feat?
First, we need a shift in values. In Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic,” he attributes general environmental damage to a flawed conception of nature. We must acquire an ecological conscience, he argues, which constitutes a “love, response, and admiration for land” and a “high regard” for its philosophical value over economic expediency. In suggesting that humans are a part of the ecological community, and not above the “floras and fauna” of the natural world, this perspective helps instill a moral responsibility for the condition of the planet. Essentially, we must learn to view natural resources as finite gifts, to be replenished and preserved, and not made for our wasteful disposal. In theological terms, we must be stewards of the land. This perspective of human and planetary interdependence upholds public health as a core principle of sustainability. We can even draw parallels between the soil and our own health, especially in terms of the trillions of microbes that interact with the soil and populate our own bodies. Moreover, the nutrients in the soil feed the plants which then feed and nourish us.
Photo: Environmentalist and author Aldo Leopold
Photo credit: Flickr – Pacific Southwest Forest Service
Indigenous communities have long harnessed and implemented this wisdom in their food systems, evident in the famous Three Sisters polyculture of corn, beans, and squash. Dr. Rupa Marya, Professor of Medicine at the University of California, discusses the importance of supporting these traditions in order to promote a proper relationship with nature. Her farm, Ma Da Dil, specifically applies agroecological principles under the leadership of Native Californians. Thus, we should learn more from those who have cultivated a harmonious existence with the land, nourishing their communities while restoring the soil.
Another crucial component of sustainability is social equity. Social sustainability entails laborer’s rights and livelihood, including fair wages, benefits, and negotiating power. We must adopt an approach that does not hinge on exploitative foreign labor, as most large-scale commercial farms do today. Hired workers must receive fair working conditions and have the ability to sustain a living. Moreover, there is a strong resistance by farmers to transition fields from conventional to sustainable due to a variety of institutional, economic, and social pressures. For instance, a lack of federal support for sustainable practices, the fear of reduced profitability, and cultural backlash within farming communities can diminish a farmer’s autonomy, or the ability to make decisions in accordance with her values, desires, or goals. Thus, placing control back in the hands of growers themselves is imperative. Lastly, social sustainability includes accessibility from a consumer perspective, making “farm fresh” food affordable to people of all income levels.
Organic Agriculture: The Solution?
I am very fortunate to have grown up in a health-conscious household in which the “organic” label marked every boxed item on our pantry shelves. I grew up immersed in the worldview of eco-friendly eaters who cooked homemade meals with ingredients from the backyard garden and composted their food scraps. Admittedly, with my nascent understanding of “health” food, I became biased against the industrial food system from a young age. When I began shopping and cooking on my own, I prioritized the perimeter of the grocery store and inspected every whole and packaged food for the prized “organic” label. I assumed “non-organic” food was bad because of the chemicals, as I had been taught. But the expensive bills against my meager college-student budget nagged at me: is the higher cost of quality worth it?
After probing for this answer through many research projects and my own personal reading, I have come to think that yes, it is worth investing in organic products from a public health perspective – specifically, for the avoidance of very potent synthetic chemicals, such as atrazine, glyphosate, and chlorpyrifos. In the 1930s, J.I. Rodale, inspired by Sir Albert Howard, became interested in an alternative farming method, which ultimately gained traction in the 1970s and 80s as a widespread movement. Rodale, considered the father of the organic movement, preached principles that were far more ecocentric than prevailing industrial methods, prioritizing biodiversity, soil fertility, and the interdependence of all life on Earth over profits and short-term yields.
But, unfortunately, due to the popularity of organic labeling, even this more sustainable farming style has become the victim of industrialization. The chemical-, GMO-, antibiotic-, sludge-free promise is not entirely genuine. Some of the natural chemicals used in organic insecticides and herbicides, such as sodium nitrate, copper sulfate, or zinc phosphide have many of the same drawbacks as synthetic chemicals. Additionally, the manure used as a replacement for fertilizer can come from cows raised on conventional farms, which means the nonbiodegradable antibiotics injected into those cows may leach into organic produce. When “organic” simply becomes input substitution, rather than the holistic, eco-conscious approach advocated by people like Rodale, then it may not offer substantial benefits compared to conventional farming.
Moreover, organic does not promise the many other social elements of sustainability. For instance, organic certification does not guarantee equitable working conditions, which becomes a problem on large-scale operations. Federal standards for organic define the farming practice in terms of its ecological and public health impacts, and not those crucial social components. Many organic farmers genuinely feel they cannot afford to pay their workers more than the minimum wage or offer additional benefits of more lucrative industries, such as health insurance and overtime pay, while other industrial organic operations engage in exploiting workers just as any industrial farm. From my own experience, I can attest to the physically demanding, strenuous nature of farming on lower-input fields. While the work is rewarding, it is grueling. The crouching, kneeling, lifting, cutting, and hoeing is taxing on even the most able-bodied farmer, and can even be dangerous in certain fields. Without fair conditions, including reasonable pay, benefits, breaks, safe equipment, and so on, farming leaves much to be desired.
Another pillar of sustainability includes the expense of organic for the consumer, prompting critics to dismiss the farming style as only serving an elitist, niche market. However, while acknowledging this lack of access is a serious issue for the food insecure, I have to point out that any alternative to the industrial model is inherently more expensive - although it should not be this way. The government’s disproportionate support for conventional farms coupled with the higher labor demands of alternative farming means that conventionally raised or grown food ingredients are much cheaper. The topic of federal policy will be explored more in the next Chapter Newsletter.
Despite these imperfections, organic is the most commercially viable option out on the market right now, that, in my perspective, is a stepping stone to a more complete system of sustainability. While becoming immersed in many principles of the industrial method -- efficiency, specialization, and centralization -- organic still has retained some of Rodale’s initial tenets.
Regenerative Agriculture: Beyond Organic
Indeed, many organic farms – certified or not – do go beyond input substitution and incorporate methods that benefit the soil.
Some farms may even earn the unofficial label of “regenerative,” sometimes referred to as “carbon farming.” Essentially, this relatively new movement of sustainability harkens back to those core principles of stewardship J.I. Rodale and Aldo Leopold advanced. According to scholar Rattan Lal, regenerative agriculture (RA) “is soil-centric rather than seed-centric” and follows the belief that the “health of soil, plants, animals, and humans is one and indivisible.” This approach, in contrast to conventional farming, focuses on obtaining yields in the long-term with minimal dependence on agrochemicals. RA takes on a more intentional, strategic management style, revolving around well-developed scientific concepts of the function of the soil. For instance, farmers may plant cover crops of nitrogen-fixing legumes to encourage the recycling of nutrients.
Below are some of the most identifiable ecological practices of sustainable agriculture. It is important to remember these methods are not widely used across the country under the corporatized and centralized context of conventional farming, yet many have existed since our ancient ancestors began cultivating crops ten thousand years ago. All of these techniques are part of a holistic, systems-based management style, considering the symbiotic relationships among the soil, microorganisms, plants, animals, and people. This method also importantly takes into account the context of specific geographic regions, as there is no uniform system for all landscapes – the Northeast requires different types of care than the Southwest.
Polyculture farming (in which many different types of crops are planted, typically four to six) rather than monoculture farming (the planting of just one crop – today farmers typically plant one to three crops in rows). In general, a diverse set of crops brings new nutrients in and out of the soil, reduces erosion, conserves and filters water, supports soil structure, and wards off pests and disease. These benefits from enhanced agricultural biodiversity are specifically harnessed through cover cropping and crop rotation.
Cover crops contribute to this greater biodiversity and are usually planted in between harvests, as opposed to leaving harvested fields barren. They typically consist of legume plants like alfalfa, peas, beans, and so forth. Cover crops serve various purposes for the soil, including improved water filtration (the roots create pores in the soil, allowing water to percolate deeper into the ground), weed control (the plants block sunlight from weed seeds), nitrogen fixation (they attract nitrogen-fixing bacteria), nutrient storage (they bring more nutrients to the soil for uptake of nutrients by crops), and erosion reduction (by preventing soil from washing away with root systems).
Crop rotation prevents pests and disease from spreading. Rather than leaving an entire field of one crop vulnerable to some fungus or menacing beetle, rotating crops can interrupt those cycles. At the same time, rotating groups like cucurbits, nightshades, or brassicas can bring different nutrients to the soil, thereby enhancing the organic matter content of the soil. Thus, crop rotation reduces the need for chemical inputs.
Compost is decomposed organic material, such as leaves, grass clippings, and crop waste. It provides many essential nutrients for plant growth and therefore is often used as fertilizer. Compost also reduces erosion and provides food for microorganisms and worms that aerate and enrich the soil with more organic matter.
No-till or low-till means seriously reducing plowing. Bringing in the tractor to intentionally fracture the soil (which removes weeds and breaks up hardened chunks) disrupts the microorganisms underneath and contributes to surface run-off and erosion, all while releasing more CO2 back into the atmosphere.
Integrating livestock is a technique that utilizes animals in a managed grazing system. This method is more controversial, as many vegans believe in reducing livestock on farms to combat climate change. While we should absolutely reduce and eventually eliminate concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOS), or factory farms, we should encourage the use of farmland for grazing, also known as pasturelands, to build soil health. Indeed, we can actually sequester carbon in the ground by imitating the natural rotation patterns of wild animals. When cows are allowed to munch on the grass in a very carefully managed way, the trampling of their hooves aerates the soil and beats down the grasses into a beneficial “litter,” which prevents erosion and diminishes the need for tillage. Moreover, the animals’ manure and nitrogen-rich urine help to nourish the soil as well.
Integrated pest management (IPM) helps thwart annoying critters, disease, and weeds by strategically observing and controlling the land to reduce the need for chemicals. IPM discourages farmers from saturating plants with potent insecticides or herbicides right away, but rather attentively monitoring the problem and assessing a proper treatment plan or preventative approach. For example, farmers may plant crops in the shade or sun depending on their preference, rotate crops, create barriers, or bring in natural predators (i.e. birds, bats, ducks, bacteria, etc.) of pesky bugs and disease.
If farmers can commit to these practices, their farms and communities will benefit tremendously. But how can we encourage the widespread use of these methods? More ambitiously, how do we supplant industrial agriculture with sustainable agriculture? Is this conversion politically feasible or practical, or even desired in the globalized world we live in? What about the social consequences of agriculture – how can we remedy the lack of farmer autonomy or marginalization of laborers, or food insecurity and unaffordability of sustainably grown products on the consumer end? All of these questions are part of larger conversations around ethics, free-market capitalism, systemic injustices, and governance. In the next Quinnehtukqut, I will delve into some of these converversations and uncover both the individual and collective solutions you might consider participating in.
Shelley Rose is a Sierra Club Connecticut student intern.
Read more articles in this series on soil health and sustainable farming:
The Story of Soil by Shelley Rose
The Harmful Effects of Conventional Practices by Shelley Rose
Lal, Rattan. “Regenerative Agriculture for Food and Climate.” Journal of Soil and Water
Conservation 75, no. 5 (2020). https://doi.org/10.2489/jswc.2020.0620a.
Leopold, Aldo, "The Land Ethic," In A Sand County Almanac, 167-189. Oxford, UK:
Oxford University Press, 1949.
McWilliams, James. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly
Eat Responsibly. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.
Ohlson, Kristin. The Soil Will Save Us. New York, NY: Rodale, Inc., 2014.
Shreck, A., Getz, C., & Feenstra, G. (2006). Social Sustainability, farm labor, and organic agriculture: Findings from an exploratory analysis. Agriculture and Human Values, 23(4), 439–449. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-006-9016-2