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Technologies :: Sustainable Agriculture

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1.What is sustainable agriculture

Sustainable agriculture can provide high food, feed, or energy crop yields without destroying the environment or undermining current productivity. Farmers who take a sustainable approach substitute knowledge for pesticides and fertilizers. They use crop rotations and other adjustments of the agricultural system to solve problems. For example, soil enrichment produces healthy plants that resist disease, cover crops retard erosion and control weeds, and natural predators help control pests. The result is that farmers are able to minimize their use of pesticides and fertilizers, thereby saving money and protecting the environment.

2.What is the definition of sustainable agriculture?

Sustainable agriculture seeks to assure profitability by maximizing and recycling on-farm resources in production systems that maintain or improve the productivity of land and water resources while protecting the environment. Sustainable strategies encourage the farmer to produce diversified value-added products through a mutually beneficial relationship with the local community.

3. Isn’t "sustainable agriculture" just another name for "organic agriculture"?

No. That is a common misconception. While it is true that organic agriculture may fall under the umbrella of sustainability, it does not follow that sustainable agriculture is always "organic".

4.How does "organic agriculture" differ from "sustainable agriculture"?

Organic agriculture has strict restrictions as to which, if any, synthetically compounded chemical pesticides can be used on crops; does not allow the use of inorganic fertilizers or additives to be used in the soil nor antibiotics to be used in animal production. Crop fields must be certified chemical-free for three years before a farmer can market crops as organic. None of these restrictions apply to sustainable agriculture systems.

5.Who would want to participate in sustainable agriculture?

Anyone interested in trying to cut costs and improve the profitability of farming though the improved management of on-farm resources. Everyone is welcome to contribute to the discussion of sustainability and adopt any ideas that may be deemed worth trying to improve their own operation. There are no requirements to adhere to a certain standard other than a moral commitment to producing profitable agricultural products in harmony with the environment in collaboration with the local community.

6.Does sustainable agriculture employ a more modern approach to farming?

Sustainable agriculture does not mean a return to either the low yields or poor farmers that characterized the 19th century. Rather, sustainability builds on current agricultural achievements, adopting a sophisticated approach that can maintain high yields and farm profits without undermining the resources on which agriculture depends. Crop rotations work to reduce pest-control costs just as well with today's high yielding varieties of crops as with yesterday's lower yielding varieties. Making agriculture sustainable does not mean standing by watching pests devour crops. It means approaching pest control in a completely different way using high quality soil, crop rotation, and beneficial insects. 

We undervalue our scientists and agriculturalists if we accept today's productive but highly polluting agriculture as the best that this country can do. We need to set agriculture the challenge of developing a highly productive but environmentally sound agriculture and then give farmers and scientists the resources to meet that challenge.

7.Will sustainable agriculture require land set aside for parks and wilderness?

Opponents of sustainable agriculture often claim that sustainable agriculture produces such low yields that land currently set aside for parks and wilderness will need to be reclaimed to meet basic food and energy needs. But, sustainable agriculture is not low-yield agriculture. It is not necessarily less efficient over the long term than industrial agriculture, so it will not require substantially more land to produce the same amount of crops. Thus, sustainable agriculture will not require us to convert natural areas to agriculture and will not impact our ability to set aside land for parks or recreation. Encroachment on parks is simply not a real concern in this country.

What is a problem, however, is the threat that development, particularly around cities, poses to agriculture. Urban sprawl continues to gobble up prime farm land, making it unavailable to agriculture. The United States (as well as other countries) needs policies to control the growth of cities and to preserve prime farmland for agricultural uses. This is particularly important when the goal is to feed people from local rather than long-distance sources

8. Can energy crops be grown sustainable?

If developed in a sustainable way, bio-energy has the potential to produce both electricity and fuel with fewer risks than those associated with oil, coal, and nuclear technologies. Bio-energy crops hold great promise to help curb heat-trapping emissions from other energy sectors that contribute to global climate change. But a rapid global expansion of bio-energy development could have unwanted environmental and economic consequences, possibly including reduced global capacity to produce food, fiber, and industrial materials. UCS has produced aset of guiding principles which, if followed, can help the country develop bio-energy in a manner that maximizes the opportunities and helps address the challenges associated with this renewable resource.

9. Is sustainable agriculture scientific?

Sustainable agriculture is firmly based in science. It uses knowledge of the complex interactions between crops, pests, and pest predators to avoid the need for costly technological fixes like pesticides and fertilizers. Such knowledge rests on research in a number of scientific disciplines, including entomology, agronomy, and weed science. Scientists in these fields are working together to understand agriculture as a system.

A good example is the Maine Potato Ecosystem Project, a large, ongoing, multidisciplinary study that involves ecologists, economists, and plant biologists working in cooperation with the Maine potato industry to understand the ecology of commercial potato agriculture. The purpose of the study is to provide valuable information to potato growers who either choose or are required to reduce their use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The study is taking a long-term, comprehensive look at soil, pests, and potatoes. One of several major objectives, for example, is to describe the interaction of soil fertility, plant vigor, and the behavior of insect pests and beneficial insect species. The project is generating a vast amount of detailed and useful data on the interactions of weeds, pests and potato yields under various weather and stress conditions. (Alford, R.A. 1996. The ecology, economics, and management of potato cropping systems: A report of the first four years of the Maine Potato Ecosystem Project, Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station, University of Maine, Bulletin 843.)

While sustainable agriculture rests on a strong scientific base, there is much still to learn. And the scientists needed to uncover the links in the agricultural system are a different mix from those on which industrial agriculture relies. Rather than chemists developing pesticides, sustainable agriculture needs more soil scientists unlocking the mysteries of healthy soil. Rather than molecular biologists making crops tolerant to herbicides, sustainable agriculture needs more weed ecologists looking for new ways to cultivate and use crops to control weeds.

10.Does sustainable agriculture work?

Answering this question is complicated for a number of reasons. The definition of sustainable agriculture is variable and can encompass a variety of practices, including, but not confined to, the restrained use of chemicals. In addition, sustainable systems often take time to develop. Soils, for example, are often impoverished in conventional agriculture systems and require years of work to restore their quality and vitality. Comparisons between crops grown using conventional methods in which soil is supplemented with chemical fertilizers, and those grown in degraded soils that are beginning to be restored through sustainable methods are misleading. Also, in order to be valid, comparisons must be made over long periods of time under different climatic and weather conditions. Nevertheless, comparisons that have been done show sustainable approaches to be highly productive and economically competitive. (Northwest Area Foundation, A better row to hoe: The economic, environmental and social impact of sustainable agriculture, 1994.) 

In considering comparisons, it is important to keep in mind that decreases in yield do not always translate into lower profits for farmers. If the lower yields are the result of lower costs for fertilizers and pesticides or energy, the profits on the farm might actually go up. Since reliance on fewer off-farm products is a major feature of sustainable systems, the savings that result from not making these purchases often allow farmers to maintain or increase profits despite somewhat lower yields. In addition, comparisons may or may not take into account the natural-resource impacts of agriculture. Taking the cost of the adverse consequences of conventional agriculture into account dramatically strengthens the case for sustainable production systems.  (P. Faeth et al., Paying the Farm Bill: U.S. agricultural policy and the transition to sustainable agriculture, World Resources Institute, 1991.)

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