As of early 2021, there are around 7.8 billion humans to feed. In 2020, roughly 2.37 billion people didn’t have a secure access to food and 720-811 million of them suffered from hunger. In 2019, 26.6% of the world population faced moderate or severe food insecurity, up from 22.6% in 2014. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has only aggravated our global food system’s flaws, and has pushed the global population’s share of food insecurity to 30.4% in 2020. By 2064, we’ll have to feed an additional 2 billion people on Earth.
That’s a problem. Our current global agricultural system doesn’t provide enough food for 8 billion of us [although we’ve seen that we produce enough food], so how can we add a quarter of that in under 45 years? Already, we’re seeing agriculture as an invasive and intensive activity, as it causes deforestation, destroys soils, and requires butt loads of water. We’ll see in this section that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Today, many regions of the world are able to feed themselves sustainably, without the need for herbicides, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers – and are living examples that low-impact agricultural systems work. We’ll need to replicate that across the globe as we look to reduce our agricultural impacts – which stand at around a fifth of our yearly GHG emissions [excluding non-food agriculture] and 70% of our yearly freshwater withdrawals, accompanied by loads of toxic pollution worldwide.
Agriculture Basics and Sustainable Agriculture
For the remainder of this section, we’ll be mostly focusing on crop farming when using the term ‘agriculture’ – even though animals can play an important role in many sustainable crop farming systems. For more detail on livestock farming, visit the Food section.
Agriculture, like all things in nature, like all things that are sustainable – is about cycles. While plants release oxygen and consume CO2, they sustain life by providing food or shelter to living beings that consume oxygen and release CO2. Plants consume water from rainfall or nearby water bodies, but pulling that water from the soil allows photosynthesis, which returns the water to the atmosphere through transpiration. Plants also provide important nutrients that allow animals to grow healthy and stay that way, but those nutrients don’t come out of nowhere. Those nutrients need to be present in the soil, so that roots can suck them up to grow their produce – so they must be returned in some way.
Crop farming systems that respect these cycles [among others] with natural processes on a given amount of land are usually pretty close to reaching sustainability and typically have low impacts on the environment. The key is to understand that soil health is one of the most important aspects of farming. While healthy soil won’t prevent natural disasters like cyclones from tearing up croplands, it can help improve farming yields and increase the nutritional value of crops for decades to come.
Maintaining healthy soil with natural processes is hard work, but it’s not really us doing the work. Bacteria, fungi, and small animals like earthworms are constantly improving soil health by breaking down organic matter into nutrients that plants can use. Additionally, they help replenish soil nitrogen contents, aerate soil, increase water infiltration rates and retention, and much more. All we need to do is return sufficient water and nutrient-rich organic matter. Water, thanks to the water cycle, isn’t usually an issue for native crops – but more frequent and intense droughts are looming as a consequence of climate change. That being said, even in regions where extreme events occur relatively often, sustainable farmers have often found a way to grow climate-resistant crops sustainably [e.g. saline, drought, or wind resistant crops].
The law of return describes this need for a nutrient cycle. Nutrient return takes care of our microscopic allies that improve soil health. In turn, they complete the cycle by breaking down the returned organic matter and transforming it into ‘ready to go’ nutrients that plants can use. Without return, soils would just lose their nutrients as plants transfer them to their crops. This type of unsustainable farming leads to ‘nutritionally-void’ and ‘pest/weed-vulnerable’ crops, which eventually leaves fields fully destroyed and nutrient-less.
Another one of our best allies in our quest for sustainable agriculture to feed billions isn’t monocultures, it’s the exact opposite: biodiversity. Biodiversity helps plants, trees, and animals work as a team [unknowingly] to ensure that soils remain healthy, just like in natural ecosystems. Although animals that feed on crops and drop dookies don’t add much to the soil’s nutrient balance, they can help with pest control, weed control, and spread fertilizer around. On the other hand, tree and plant intercropping [multiple crops/trees on the same field], cover crops [crops that aren’t harvested], and crop rotations can help pull in nutrients that other crops need from the atmosphere into the soil – to create a sustainable nutrient balance. It’s worth noting that these techniques also help reduce soil erosion, retain water, control weeds, pests, diseases, and sequestrate carbon [we’ll see this in detail later].
At the global scale, this is yet another chapter in the ‘single-use vs. reuse’ tale, this time for food production. While it seemed more effective decades ago to simply grow monocultures with pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers [that only provide some nutrients – e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur], it’s not a great long-term plan.
It’s easy to pick a healthy soil and show that intensive agriculture can produce better yields than sustainable farming, since there’s already plenty of nutrients in the soil. What we’ve failed to do is examine the long-term effects. How can modern agricultural systems expect to break the law of return, and still have enough nutrients to pump out the same rates of production year after year? Well apart from increasing herbicide/pesticide/synthetic fertilizer input yearly, they can’t – which explains why 4 million km2 of farmland have already been abandoned due to land degradation. That’s equivalent to losing 8% of our global 2019 farmland area, or an area roughly the size of the EU [not Europe]. Similar to intensive agriculture, taking powerful steroids can help people bulk up fast, but it’s not a great plan long-term.
Instead of relying on proven solutions like the law of return or biodiversity, many developed countries started applying standard optimization methods that usually work in other sectors to maximize efficiency [centuries/decades ago depending on the method]. Between increasing the number of crops per area, increasing irrigation, creating dependencies on chemical herbicides/pesticides/fertilizers, reducing gene diversity, and implementing monocultures to maximize yields – we’ve set ourselves up for failure by thinking short-term. Consequently, we’re now clearing landscapes to make more room for crops and livestock, drawing unsustainable amounts of water, and polluting ecosystems with chemicals – to somehow increase current food production with unsustainable practices [even if food production just needed to be maintained in the near future, unsustainable practices would still lead to these types of impacts].
It’s important to understand that we don’t suggest going back to our old farming techniques from 1,000 years ago, since yields in many regions of the world were just terrible at the time – and farming practices weren’t necessarily sustainable either. In Europe, there were frequent famines due to subsistence agriculture [i.e. little/no surplus] and poor crop diversity as well. However, the idea that we would all go hungry nowadays if we stopped relying on monocultures/chemicals and instead transitioned to sustainable agriculture is simply unfounded. And as we now know, it’s monocultures that threaten global food security – not the other way around.
Intensive agriculture depletes nutrient reserves from soils, then moves on to the next patch of fertile land. By definition, that’s not sustainable. At some point, we’re going to need to set a limit as to how much space agriculture can take up of the world’s surface.
In 2019, crop and livestock farming occupied 50% of all habitable lands. No matter how high we let that percentage get, it’s pretty clear that switching to sustainable farming practices is the right move – to avoid more land use conversion now and ensure we achieve global food security in the future.
Lastly, increasing the number of monocultures reduces gene diversity for thousands of species worldwide – which seriously puts food security at risk. Just as with inbreeding, the lack of gene diversity can seriously weaken the product. In the case of monocultures, entire fields can be ravaged by a single threat [e.g. pest, weed, disease].
What Does Doing It Right Look Like?
Quite simply, doing it right means doing what we know works. While the climate conditions are changing, sustainable agriculture remains our best ally in the fight against hunger worldwide. There really isn’t another option, seeing as how the world’s resources are finite. Going back to our roots will help remediate soil that has been damaged by careless agriculture and reduce the food industry’s emissions considerably.
Luckily, we don’t have to choose between present and future food security. Our sustainable farming practices have significantly improved in recent decades as we’ve gotten to understand many important natural farming cycles [e.g. the law of return] – often taught by remote communities that have been applying these methods for ages. Now, in conjunction with advanced data analytics and a long-term plan, we can start our transition to sustainable agriculture while increasing current food production with land to spare [e.g. we can develop statistical models to help determine which intercropping combinations can work well together in specific regions].
Additionally, since sustainable agriculture practices strengthen crops and their surrounding environment, they can partly protect the crops from extreme climate events. For example, while there’s no doubt cyclones can ravage any cropland in their path, stronger roots in healthier soils produce climate-resistant crops that can resist higher wind speeds. In addition, since healthier soils improve water infiltration and retention – sustainably grown crops can survive for longer periods of drought than crops grown in damaged soils.
Not all regions of the world have much experience with sustainable farming. Southern Asia’s traditional farming practices are certainly quite advanced, and are a model for sustainable agriculture around the world. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we can import Indian vegetables and start cultivating them like they do. Sustainable farming is about growing what grows in a specific environment to take advantage of the present conditions, without needing additional irrigation or chemicals. Sustainable agriculture is local agriculture, that needs to be clear.
Finally, it’s important to understand that sustainable farming isn’t more expensive than intensive farming. Right now it might seem so, but that’s only because intensive agriculture doesn’t charge us for the environmental costs. On the other hand, sustainable agriculture avoids separating the production aspect of farming with the environment’s recovery. Additionally, sustainable agriculture isn’t dependent on chemical fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide costs – which are becoming increasingly problematic as we look to increase yields on a limited land area.
As with all things, the better option will be the long-term solution. Here, that means transitioning to sustainable agriculture. The current food production systems are running out of room and leave sterile dirt where they found fertile soil – and that can’t be sustained much longer with our finite resources.
Agriculture’s GHG Balance
On top of providing food security to nearly 10 billion people, sustainable agriculture has the potential to completely change the sector’s current GHG balance. Not only in terms of emissions reduction – but also for its promising carbon removal capabilities [i.e. we can reduce emissions and remove carbon that’s already in the atmosphere]. After all, crops consume CO2 during photosynthesis, so there’s definitely a way for croplands to grow food and act as carbon sinks at the same time.
As we’ve seen in a previous section, natural carbon sinks have a few challenges of their own. Nonetheless, maximizing each sink’s sequestration capacity remains essential – and certainly achievable.
Right off the bat, we know we have to reduce agriculture’s GHG emissions well below the estimated 10.4 billion tonnes of CO2e emitted in 2018 [excluding non-food agriculture – again, there are more conservative estimates]. Reducing land use conversion from green ecosystems to farmlands is an extremely important first step. Green ecosystems like forests and peatlands store loads of carbon above and below ground [in wood, roots, leaves, soil, etc…]. When we clear them and prepare the soil for farming, we’re releasing that carbon into the atmosphere – on top of contributing to biodiversity loss.
Next, reducing our consumption of high-impact products is also a priority. This is closely related to avoiding land use conversion, since some foods require much more space than others. For example, livestock drives roughly 67% of deforestation for agriculture – while agriculture itself was responsible for around 73% of tropical deforestation worldwide from 2000-2010 [with tropical deforestation accounting for roughly 95% of total deforestation]. A quick calculation using the numbers above would provide a very approximative estimate that livestock was responsible for 46% of deforestation worldwide from 2000-2010.
Avoiding high-impact products can also mean consuming from farms that employ lower-impact practices than competitors. For example, lower-impact farming methods for rice production would help slash the sector’s methane emissions considerably [other examples include improving fertilizer/manure application to reduce N2O emissions – which is 265 times more greenhousy than CO2].
As we switch to more sustainable farming methods, we’ll be able to store some carbon from the atmosphere into healthy soil. While we won’t revisit carbon sequestration’s challenges in this section, we’ll point out that storing carbon in farmlands will help – but is much less effective than leaving green ecosystems alone. So clearing these landscapes for agriculture, in the hope of sequestrating that carbon back into the soil is simply unfeasible. Instead, countries should increase natural carbon storage by restoring destroyed soils and damaged fields back into green ecosystems – while switching to sustainable farming practices on existing farmlands. All the while reducing food wastage.