Our current farming system is deeply flawed with inefficiencies and unsustainable practices. Sustainable farming is a journey rather than a destination; it aims to conserve ecosystems, support biodiversity and meet the challenges of our delicate world. This essay presents three serious problems – soil loss, water depletion and food supply – and explores possible solutions. At the moment there is not yet a fully sustainable agricultural system, but the future shows the potential for much improvement.
Soil is the key to life on land; the right soil is the most important factor for growing crops. Soil erosion is therefore a major obstacle for farmers around the world. Soil should be treated as a non-renewable resource; according to the USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, it takes at least 100 years for an inch of soil to be created. The amount of land that has become unusable during our lifetime will not be replaced for many, many generations. Erosion removes top and surface soil, which often has the highest biological activity and the greatest amount of soil organic matter. As a result, nutrients are lost and often a less favorable climate for plant growth is created. Plants need this soil for root growth, to avoid being blown and washed away by the weather, and for greater root depth for water, air and nutrients. Once the nutrients cannot support plant growth on site, the soil can build up in water and cause many ecological problems such as algae blooms and lake eutrophication.
This problem is nothing new and there are many practices to prevent further erosion. The Soil Erosion Act of 1935, the first national soil conservation program, was a response to the largest ever soil erosion crisis, the dust bowl. It established the Soil Conservation Service, now the USDA-NRCS, or Natural Resource Conservation Service, to help farmers and ranchers use conservation techniques on their land. These practices include contour plowing, strip cultivation, terracing, non-tillage farming, shelter belts, crop rotation and leguminous crops or residues.
Due to unsustainable irrigation, grazing and farming practices, surface/rainwater is not sufficient to meet our agricultural needs. In the 1950s, a major problem with water resources arose with the introduction of electric pumps, which allowed groundwater to be used for irrigation. A groundwater system prior to development is in equilibrium in the long run; removed water is compensated by added water, and the volume of water in the storage remains relatively constant.
While the reliance on agricultural irrigation is unlikely to go away, smarter methods of irrigation and water conservation do exist. Soil moisture testers can only be used to irrigate fields when the soil is dry, preventing waterlogging and reducing water waste. Timed and morning/evening irrigation methods can be used to reduce water loss through evaporation and use the least amount of water needed. These methods can reduce the abstraction from aquifers, but also by choosing better crops (growing less maize, wasting less water), reassessing which crops should be irrigated (maize and other intensive crops are not used for human consumption , but for animal consumption). feed and ethanol), and the removal of subsidies for crops that use more water (higher costs for higher water consumption). Also, these crops are grown in areas that are not naturally conducive to their growth. For example, the majority of all irrigated corn acreage in the US is located in four states: Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, and Colorado. These four states have different climates and soil types. A shift to growing crops in an area where needs can be better met naturally will drastically reduce irrigation practices.
Flood irrigation is one of the most popular crop irrigation methods. Water is pumped or brought to the fields and allowed to flow along the ground between the crops. This method is simple and inexpensive, and is widely used by societies in less developed parts of the world and also in the US. However, it is not effective or durable; about half of the water used ultimately does not reach the crops.
Wastewater can be minimized by leveling fields; Flood irrigation uses gravity to transport water, so the water flows down and doesn’t evenly cover the field. Leveling the field allows the water to flow evenly through the fields. It can also be reduced by flooding. It is a less traditional type of flood irrigation; normally, water is simply discharged into a field, but in floods, water is released at pre-arranged intervals, effectively reducing unwanted runoff. Finally, collecting and reusing wastewater will increase efficiency. A large amount of irrigation water is wasted as it runs off the edges and back of the fields. Run-off water can be collected in ponds and pumped back to the field, where it is reused for the next irrigation cycle.
Drip irrigation is known as the most water efficient irrigation method. Water falls in a dripping motion close to a plant’s root zone. This requires extensive hoses to ensure irrigation reaches all the plants in a garden, but results in less wasted water. The system can be programmed to operate on a timer, operated manually or programmed to respond to current conditions. When properly installed, you can gradually reduce water loss through evaporation and runoff, as well as weed growth. Drip irrigation also reduces the loss of nutrients in the soil, reduces leaching to the water table and local waterways, and reduces water loss through evaporation. Soil damage from spraying and other forms of irrigation is also reduced.
These problems are exacerbated by our current cultivation system; many crops are grown in non-promoting regions and require synthetic fertilizers, irrigation and pesticides. An attempt to grow more efficient and ecologically sound crops is GM crops. These GM crops were contested during the class debate and favored by a minority of the students. While the current system poses many problems, its future potential cannot be ignored. My classmates were against the technology for several reasons, including mental and aesthetic preference for organic/natural foods, lack of knowledge about the toxicological effects of GMO foods. They also criticized farms for pursuing profit without worrying about potential dangers, and the government for failing to adequately monitor regulations.
Tolerance to extreme drought, cold and salinity is perhaps one of the most important adaptations for the future of agriculture. As the world’s population grows and the need for new farmland increases, crops will have to be grown in locations previously unsuitable for plant cultivation. By creating plants that can withstand prolonged frost, drought or high salinity in soil and groundwater, people can grow crops in previously inhospitable places. For example, GMO salmon, infused with genes from other fish species, grows faster than wild salmon and can survive colder waters, allowing the salmon to thrive in new environments. However, it is currently not on the market. Another off-the-market modification is the antifreeze gene. An unexpected frost can destroy sensitive seedlings and ruin an entire crop. An antifreeze gene from cold water fish has been introduced into plants such as tobacco and potato. This antifreeze gene allows these plants to tolerate cold temperatures that would normally kill unmodified seedlings. This technology allows these plants to grow in colder temperatures where they would normally not germinate.
Traditionally, American agriculture has been characterized by inefficiency and waste. Soils have been severely depleted and fields have been left faded, aquifers have been exhausted and water has been wasted or evaporated, and food production is under pressure to meet the demands of a growing world population. Fortunately, the situation is not as dire as it seems; there are many conservation techniques to revive the soil, new technology will help protect our finite water supply, and human ingenuity is applied in food production. It is clear that we are moving towards a more modern, sustainable and efficient agricultural system.