On Earth Day, let’s pause to consider why sustainable farming is good for our planet. (There are other benefits of sustainable agriculture that are not environmental, but today, let’s focus on Earth!)
- Soil: Factory farms abuse the land, overusing it without resting the soil, and douse it with chemicals in an attempt to replenish the soil’s nutrients. Sustainable farms carefully manage soils to increase nutrients and prevent erosion, through crop rotation and diversification, the use of manure, mulch, and other natural enhancers and protectors, and the planting of cover crops. Crop rotation and diversification naturally enrich the soil and keep crops healthier, without the use of chemical fertilizer. Manure and mulch increase soil moisture and biomass, and protect the soil. Cover crops increase the nitrogen in the soil, which is accomplished in conventional farming through the application of chemicals; cover crops also reduce erosion by creating a buffer between soil and rainfall, and their root systems anchor the soil in place.
- Water: Large commercial farms contaminate water supplies with nitrogen, salt, and other fertilizer chemicals; pesticides; and animal waste. They also consume large quantities of water. Sustainable farms may use cover crops to increase the nitrogen content of the soil, thereby eliminating the need for nitrogen enhancements via water-contaminating chemicals. Cover crops can also be used for pest control, replacing chemical pesticides. “Trap crops” attract pests away from cash crops, and “habitat augmentation” uses cover crops that attract pests’ natural predators. Sustainable farms recycle animal waste back into the land as a fertilizer, rather than allowing it to pollute waterways. The rate of water consumption is less on sustainable farms than on conventional farms, as sustainable farming creates moister soil that is better equipped to retain water.
- Air: Large farms contribute to declining air quality by emitting toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases into the air, spraying pesticides, and trucking shipments long distances. Decomposing manure tanks or lagoons emit gases such as ammonia, carbon dioxide, and methane into the atmosphere. Methane, which is a greenhouse gas, is also released from cows as they digest corn-based diets, which their systems aren’t built to digest. Sustainable farming practices rely on alternative pest-control techniques that don’t spray chemicals into the air. Farms that sell their produce locally require less fossil-fuel-based energy to transport their wares than farms that ship food to far-off places. And sustainable farms that feed animals diets based on foods they would eat in nature relieve the chronic indigestion that leads to massive amounts of methane production.
- Wildlife: The wildlife that lives in soil may not get as much publicity, but it’s just as important. Healthy soil that is sustainably farmed hosts countless critters such as earthworms, arthropods, and bacteria. Sustainable farming is safer for fish, which are killed when runoff from factory farms pollutes streams. Wildlife drinking from waterways polluted by animal waste or fertilizer runoff from factory farms can be harmed by chemicals or pathogens. Fewer insects in the soil means less food for birds. The creation of huge factory farms displaces animal populations and destroys habitats, while sustainable farms with diversified plantings create an environment that encourages the growth of native plant, insect, and animal populations.
- Energy conservation: Sustainable farms are less dependent on non-renewable energy sources, in particular petroleum, than large-scale agricultural businesses. They use fewer chemicals, which require a tremendous amount of fossil fuel-produced energy to manufacture. Sustainable farms generally do not produce processed foods, which take more energy to produce than whole foods. Farms that raise pasture-fed animals conserve energy by letting the animals do the work of spreading manure and feeding themselves.
So celebrate Earth Day by eating some locally grown produce and pasture-raised meat! If you’re lucky, like we are here at Haute Pasture, you can raise a glass of local wine with your meal!
Sources: UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, Sustainable Table, Cover Crops, Helium.com, Myth Six: Industrial Agriculture Benefits the Environment and Wildlife, Wildlife Friendly Farming Guide