Sustainable agriculture is by nature, an ethical industry to reduce dependence on the use of non-renewable energy
It is important to be aware of all the methods that can make agriculture sustainable - not only because it is the sector of a country’s production working to sustain its population - helping it elude the very permanent consequences of malnutrition.
Sustainable agriculture is the production of food, fiber, or other plant or animal products using farming techniques that are environmentally friendly. The practice integrates three main goals: environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Sustainable agriculture depends on replenishing the soil while minimizing the use or need of non-renewable resources, such as natural gas, or mineral ores.
The three pillars of sustainability include:
Need for a sustainable economic model that ensures fair distribution and efficient allocation of our resources. This pillar ensures that our economic growth maintains a healthy balance with our ecosystem.
This pillar supports initiatives like: renewable energy, reducing fossil fuel consumption and emissions, sustainable agriculture and fishing, organic farming, tree planting and reducing deforestation, recycling, and better waste management.
This pillar supports initiatives like peace, social justice, reducing poverty, and other grassroots movements that promote social equity. As human beings we have an ethical responsibility to do something about human inequality, social injustice, as well as poverty.
It is important to be aware of all the methods that can make agriculture sustainable for the sector as a whole contributes 18.4% to global greenhouse gasses (GHG) emissions, second to the very unsustainable sector of energy, and a percentage as staggering as this needs to be actively worked on.
The key to sustainable agriculture is finding the right balance between the need for food production and the preservation of environmental ecosystems. Sustainable farming practices depend upon the key end goals of water conservation, minimizing water, air & soil pollution, increasing crop resilience to extreme weather conditions, as well as working towards the promotion and enhancement of biodiversity.
Following are the key methods of being able to practice sustainable agriculture while fulfilling its major principles.
Crop Rotation: this method of sustainable farming focuses on the improvement of soil quality and prevents erosion by routinely switching up the crops planted. Well-planned crop rotation involves the sowing of a variety of crops sequentially on the same plot of fertile land to improve soil health, optimize nutrients and the nutrient content of the soil while combating pest and weed stresses.
Let us take the example of a farmer who plants a field of maize. Corn particularly uptakes a lot of nitrogen from the soil, hence to prevent the exhaustion of nitrogen content the farmer will plant beans next, which are well known to return the nitrogen to soil (legumes promote nitrogen fixation). These breaks in continuous cultivation give the land time to rejuvenate hence improving its fertility and the yield of future crops.
In Pakistan, some of the more common rotation patterns adopted by farmers include: the rice-wheat rotation (prevalent in Punjab and Sindh), the maize-wheat rotation (found in most of the KPK districts, Punjab, and in Balochistan), the sugarcane-wheat pattern ( found in Punjab, KPK, Sindh and Balochistan), as well as other minor cropping patterns observed in different districts such as, rice-chickpea, pulses-chickpea, pulses-wheat, sorghum-wheat and sesame-barley.
Advantages of Crop Rotation:
At Rodale Institute's Farming Systems Trial, soybeans are part of a complex crop rotation that includes corn, wheat, oats, and other small grains.
Cover Crops: Cover crops, as the name suggests, are planted in the off harvest season to cover the soil. These crops are not planted for the sake of profit or trade but to maintain the soil structure and fertility by essentially covering the otherwise exposed soil.
The practice of planting cover crops is often encouraged in combination with crop rotation, i.e. it is during crop rotations that some of the more common cover crops are planted such as legumes, grasses (forage grains), brassicas, turnips, radishes, etc. The preferred cover crops amongst Pakistani farmers are legumes and grasses for they are best suited to the region’s soil.
There are mainly 2 types of cover crops: winter and summer cover crops. Winter cover crops consist mainly of cereals planted after the fall harvest of cash crops. Their purpose is to serve as a natural ground “shield” until spring sows, not to amp yield. Summer cover crops, however are grown in summer in-between cash crop rotations. Summer cover crops are planted with the aim to defeat weeds, reduce erosion, adjust the earth for the next crop, as well as to serve as fodder for livestock.
Advantages of Cover Crops:
Reducing Tillage: Tillage, in agriculture, stands for the preparation of soil for planting. This preparation may involve manipulation of fertile land and soil into a desired condition by mechanical means for desired effects such as pulverization, cutting, and/or movement are achieved. Soil is also tilled to change its structure, to kill weeds, and to manage any crop residues.
If tillage is so useful for the agricultural processes, then why does sustainable farming stand for its reduction and sometimes total elimination? This is because tillage leads to soil loss and destruction of soil structure. Preserving crop residue on the soil surface provides a cover that reduces wind and water erosion, runoff, and nutrient loss, resulting in benefits for water and air quality. This is where no-till or reduced-till methods should be discussed; in which seeds are planted directly into undisturbed soil, helping prevent erosion and increase soil health.
Advantages of Reduced Tillage:
In Pakistan, the Sheikhpura district has displayed rapid switchover to zero till. Recently, the district government of Lahore has purchased zero till drills for the use of local Lahore farmers too. Moreover, independent farmers in Sindh too have bought no till drills and transported them to their lands.
As shown above, tractor use increases carbon content in the air dramatically hence eliminating tillage would be greatly beneficial for the environment and sustainability.
Organic Pest Mitigation: Pests pose a significant threat to crop yields, and in turn, to the livelihood of all concerned with the agriculture industry. The use of chemical pesticides to counter the problem is - to an extent, counter productive - mainly owing to the range of impacts chemical pesticides have on human and environmental health.
Some of the side effects of chemical pesticide use include: domestic animal contaminations and deaths, effect on human health where thousands of cancer cases each year are attributable to pesticides, contamination of groundwater etc. A sustainable solution to chemical pesticides is the use of mechanical and biological controls for pest control instead.
Mechanical pest controls involve the use of hands-on techniques, simple equipment and natural ingredients that provide a protective barrier between plants and insects. Some examples are: handpicking (hand destruction or removal of insects and egg masses), traps and attractants (to trap enough insects to lower crop damage, or to monitor how many and what species of insects are present), water pressure sprays (a forceful stream of water will sometimes dislodge insects from foliage and plant stems), and many more sustainable solutions. While biological control implementation follows the principles of using living organisms to control pests. An example would be the introduction of Parasitoids against fruit flies in Pakistan due to the spoilage of citrus fruits caused by the parasitic species.
Advantages of Organic Pest Mitigation:
Farmers spray pesticide over cotton crop in Faisalabad. The environmental impact of chemical pesticides can be detrimental to health.
Integration Of Livestock & Crops: Plant and animal production are typically kept independent of one another in industrial agriculture, with animals living far from feed-producing areas and crops growing far from rich manure fertilizers. However, an increasing amount of evidence suggests that combining agricultural and animal production has the potential to improve farm efficiency and profitability.
The separation of the two sectors leads to heavy reliance on off-farm purchases of organic feed for livestock, or of fertilizers for fertility purposes of the land. This increases production costs, as well as the volume of greenhouse gasses emission owing to transportation. Integrating crops and livestock on a multi-function operation could have multiple benefits and the potential to improve the profitability of these kinds of operations.
In Pakistan, it is the close integration of the livestock sector with the rural subsistence economy that is made possible by strong reliance of livestock on the cultivated regions for crop residues and fodder crops. The rangelands, as explained, provide the other major source of
animal feed. On this basis, it has been possible to meet the minimum dietary requirements for animal protein and fats that supplement the animals providing the nation with dairy products.
Advantages of Integration of Livestock and Crops:
Application of Agroforestry Practices: Agroforestry is an intensive land management system that optimizes the benefits from the biological interactions created when trees and/or shrubs are deliberately combined with crops and/or livestock. What this does is seek positive interactions between components, aiming to achieve a more ecologically diverse and productive output from the limited land than is possible through conventional, non-integrated agriculture.
Like most of the world, Pakistan’s forest systems are no exception and the country faces an ongoing crisis as the growing population heavily straining the food production systems and forest resources of the country. The need of the hour is an introduction of effective food systems that enhance productivity, increase economic outputs, and improve ecological outcomes. This is where Agroforestry, a traditional land management system in Pakistan, comes in. Planting trees on private farmland provides clear ownership of any timber resource and well managed systems have great potential both to boost agriculture and reduce wood shortages.
Advantages of Agroforestry:
Sustainable agriculture is by nature, an ethical industry. Collectively, we as humans stand to gain much from the implementation of sustainable agriculture practices mentioned above, ranging from the preservation of the environment to economic benefit to farmers. Owing to these practices, the agriculture sector can substantially reduce its hyper-dependence on the use of non-renewable resources as well as toxic agrochemicals. The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems which enable us to be able to protect humans, animals and nature alike.