Employing more than one billion people and generating over $1.3 trillion worth of food a year, agriculture is the world’s largest industry.
In fact, approximately half of the Earth’s habitable land is used for food production.
A 2016 study reports emissions from farms surpass all other human sources of air-pollution in much of the U.S., Europe, Russia and China. The nitrogen from fertilizers and animal waste mixes with industrial emissions, creating dangerous air pollutants. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] states that livestock alone is responsible for 18% of all global greenhouse emissions.
The good news is — because agriculture has such an extensive impact on the environment, economy and our everyday lives — it also possesses immense potential to be where we make the biggest impact on the fight against climate change.
Here are some ways we can transform the harmful effects of agriculture to ones that help the planet heal:
Better Land Management
According to the FAO, improving the sustainability of agriculture requires the rehabilitation of degraded forests and rangeland through efforts including: farmer education, conservation agriculture, and sustainable forest management.
Deforestation for agricultural production is a major contributor to climate change because it not only destroys the plant-life that would absorb carbon dioxide, but the carbon stored in the forests is released when they are cut or burned. Additionally, deforestation causes and accelerates desertification that threatens the food security and livelihoods of millions of people.
The American Farm Bureau Foundation lists growing cover crops, implementing crop rotation, creating buffer zones of vegetation to minimize soil erosion, and forgoing the utilization of tilled fields as ways to better steward agricultural land.
The FAO defines biodiversity as “the sum of all terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.” For agricultural ecosystems to sustain life and produce food, biological diversity must be maintained.
The conversion of natural or semi-natural land into industrial agricultural land often involves the introduction of invasive alien species such as pests and diseases that threaten the balance of the existing ecosystem.
To protect and maintain the health of agricultural ecosystems, what FAO calls “regulating services” can be implemented. These regulations include forest restoration that contributes to air and water purification, as well as carbon sequestration and storage. Another strategy is employing livestock to help maintain ecological balance through browsing, grazing, nutrient cycling and dispersal of seeds. Implementing well-managed fisheries is crucial, too.
Also, supporting animal pollination is very important for the health of an ecosystem’s plant life. So protect bees!
According to the World Bank, agriculture uses about 70% of the planet’s freshwater. Water conservation is essential to nearly every area of sustainable agriculture.
The FAO projects that the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion by 2050, which is a 50% increase compared to 2000. Because agriculture must provide for this increase, our water use has to become more efficient and sustainable.
Approaches for doing this include making rainwater more widely available through rainwater harvesting and specialized irrigation, developing less water-intensive crop varieties and improving cropping systems and agronomics such as conservation tillage.
Furthermore, improving water recycling efforts and making them more widely available can reduce the strain on our water resources.
Reducing Greenhouse Gases
Agriculture has a lot of potential to go from being a major carbon producer to a major carbon sequesterer. Carbon Cycle Institute describes a practice called “Carbon Farming” that increases the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material and organic matter.
These farming practices include compost use, restoration of riparian areas on working lands (buffer zones of vegetation) and wetland restoration.
There are also a number of ways to reduce carbon emissions on farms. For example, we can trade fossil fuel-powered tractors and other farm equipment for clean energy-powered alternatives such as this electric tractor from Solectrac. Also, forgoing fossil fuel-based fertilizers and using renewable, organic alternatives not only reduces carbon output but also keeps harmful chemicals out of ecosystems.
By taking a more holistic approach to farming and prioritizing conservation, agriculture has the potential to help offset the harm of climate change.
The world’s dependency on industrial monoculture is both unsustainable and inefficient. It devastates our environment and rural communities while poisoning water supplies and causing high levels of air pollution. Not to mention that its overemphasis of commodity crops like corn and soybeans lead to junk-food dominated diets that result in enormously costly health impacts.
Sustainable agriculture not only promises a healthier future but is arguably necessary to ensure a stable future. With rising temperatures and global populations, we need to find ways to swiftly end destructive farming practices and implement alternatives that work in harmony with our natural world.
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