Sustainable Agriculture Through Innovation and Collaboration

Sustainable Agriculture Through Innovation and Collaboration

Jeffrey Potent, Adjunct Professor
Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs and the Columbia Earth Institute

Agriculture is sustainable when it nourishes people and restores and protects the land, air, water and other living creatures.  It is sustainable when it mitigates and is resilient to climate change and provides livelihoods and dignity for farmers, workers and rural communities.  While achieving sustainable agriculture is one of the greatest challenges of our age, at its core there is nothing political or controversial about it.  Putting it bluntly, agriculture that does not meet these criteria will not persist and consequentially will be unable to support human civilization.

Why Sustainable Agriculture Now?

Individuals and institutions are becoming increasingly concerned about the social and environmental impacts and the broader societal ramifications associated with conventional agricultural systems.  In response, many are acting to bring into view a brighter future that is capable of satisfying this long list of criteria.  They are employing conventional, traditional and emerging knowledge, technologies, production systems and perspectives.  However, to fully embrace this new agriculture, farmers, researchers, and public and private sector decision-makers must continue to evolve practices and policies, commit financial and human resources, and collaborate across disciplines, political boundaries and geographic regions.

Action is critical because prevailing agriculture practices do not offer a reasonable path forward.  Conventional (or what is referred to as industrial) agriculture has created the “green revolution,” dramatically increasing yields and reducing the labor-intensity of agricultural systems.  This has allowed hundreds of millions of people to pursue other endeavors, contributing to the innovations and benefits of our modern society.  However, conventional agriculture is input-intensive, resulting in the drawdown of fossil fuel stocks, water and other resources.  It also contributes to soil erosion, biodiversity loss, climate change, water pollution and destabilization of rural economies.

Smaller conventional farmers also struggle to make ends meet.  Many must sell their crops as commodities to cooperatives or brokers with little opportunity for alternative markets or price negotiation.  Others travel hundreds of miles to urban farm markets to sell their goods and many engage in off-farm employment to support their families.  This often brings into question the underlying economics of such operations.  However, another perspective holds that the problem stems from the unwillingness of governmental agencies and other institutions to balance the playing field by providing adequate technical and financial assistance and the infrastructure needed to support these creative and resourceful farmers.

Traditional agriculture provides access to the land and sustenance for millions of peasant farmers around the world.  However, as their numbers increase and as climate change reduces available water and disrupts weather patterns, the ability of traditional agricultural systems to nourish people and maintain the land is diminishing.

These forms of agriculture all have their place in our society, evolving in response to human needs and capabilities.  However, each manifests limitations that have contributed to or as of yet failed to fully address the food and nutritional challenges of the day.   In addition, while the consequences of not operating sustainably may result in off-farm environmental and social impacts, the impacts could also result in dire consequences for the farm operation itself.  As noted by Jules Pretty, an expert on sustainable agriculture from the University of Essex in the U.K., “when a factory causes environmental degradation, the impacts are most keenly felt downwind and downstream.  When a farmer damages soil and water, the most severe impacts can be on his or her own farm, reducing yield, the nutritional value of the crops and animals produced, and destroying the resources upon which the business depends.” 1

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

To address these challenges, farmers, foodies, environmentalists and surprisingly many agribusiness executives are abuzz about sustainable agriculture.  Perspectives, visions and actions vary substantially, but all seek the same Holy Grail.  Similar to corporate sustainability, they seek agriculture that achieves an integrated bottom line wherein profits result from abundant agricultural yields and improved environmental and social conditions.  These objectives can be illusive for any business but, for farming, it can be all the more challenging given the diverse array of involved stakeholders and the intimate relationship between business operations and the natural world.

There is no template or set of procedures easily embraced to assure a sustainable agricultural system.  Success depends upon location, scale, types of production and the objectives of the farmer.  However, it is the acute set of issues and the opportunities that can be captured by getting it right that has inspired so many to embrace sustainable agriculture.  To this end, millions of practitioners, scientists and other interested parties are actively experimenting, collaborating and applying innovative approaches.  Despite the fact that there are no silver bullets, there are many success stories at all scales and in all sectors of this vast and varied industry across the U.S. and around the world.   For a comprehensive overview of this field and notable accomplishments of sustainable agriculture practitioners, please see an essay by Frances More Lappe, entitled “Farming for a Small Planet:  Agroecology Now.” 2

At the agro-industrial scale, producers, trade associations and agribusiness corporations are independently and through a multiplicity of consortia, identifying major impacts of their production systems and developing workable alternatives.  These operators are employing global positioning systems (GPS), geographic information systems (GIS) and an array of agricultural innovations to improve yields while reducing water, chemical and energy inputs and soil/nutrient loss through management practices broadly referred to as precision agriculture.  Their perspective is often stated in terms of the need to feed 9.5 billion people with 50 to 100% greater food output by midcentury, keeping impacts equal to or below that of currently employed production systems.  Reducing food waste throughout the product lifecycle is also an element of such initiatives.

Among small to midsize multigenerational farms, often viewed as a conservative segment of the agriculture industry, on the ground realities and the growing influence of the younger generation are pushing adoption of new (and sometimes restoration of historically effective) agricultural techniques.  With renewed vigor, many of these young people are studying at land grant universities and returning to the land, bringing with them both scientific approaches to high yield, low impact farming and a renewed commitment to land stewardship for future generations.  The result is renewed productivity and profitability while preserving cherished farm lifestyles and the natural resource base that supports these enterprises.

Regional foodsheds are evolving, in part as the result of local agriculture policies and “farm to market/farm to table” initiatives.  These innovations are manifesting through novel collaborations among farmers, distributors, local governments and others stakeholders.  Much of this innovation focuses on organic production and is based on agroecological principles that approach agriculture as a system nested within larger natural and human systems.  The aim is to optimize diverse production while restoring the biological and social integrity of rural communities and linkages to proximate urban centers.  These regional approaches are emerging in areas where conventional agriculture has diminished due to consolidation trends, shifting markets and loss of farm infrastructure.  They are embraced by conventional farmers attuned to new direct-to-market opportunities and young people new to farming, driven by a desire to create wholesome and meaningful lifestyles.  These trends are all converging into a robust exploration of new approaches to agriculture that build on the science and practicality of conventional production and the perspectives and sensibilities of sustainable development.

The limitation, however, is that rhetoric and point of departure often get in the way of effective engagement.  I echo the voices of many brilliant and dedicated leaders in the agricultural community who implore us to find ways to rise above our differences and work together for the common good. While the notion of the common good may sound fanciful, there is no better example of what we all hold common then our collective need for nutrition and ecosystems that will sustain us and our children well into the future.

As industrial agriculture has become a dominant force in the U.S. and is expanding its reach globally, there remains value in supporting and engaging with others in the agricultural community who possess indigenous and experiential knowledge.  These independent innovators are testing and applying practices that produce substantial yields while restoring critical ecosystem services.  The benefit in such engagement for industrial agriculture is access to practices and crop varieties that can be adapted for larger scale production.  Through engagement, traditional farmers and agroecologists can take advantage of the agribusiness sector’s ability to standardize, validate and broadly disseminate best practice knowledge.  I am suggesting that researchers and practitioners of all stripes open themselves to the possibility that not all innovation dwells within their own house and that the best solutions for the array of agricultural challenges lie in inclusive and honest engagement.  Achieving a global agricultural sector, diverse in responses to climatic, cultural, financial and market conditions, and aligned through principles that support people, planet and profits, is the broad objective that will transport agriculture into a bright and hopeful future.

To Learn More

A Fall 2016 Earth Institute, Center for Environmental Sustainability course, entitled “Sustainable Agricultural Practices,” will profile the range of these and related approaches to this burgeoning new field.  The course will explore emerging trends, anticipated outcomes, obstacles and the common ground and contradictions associated with leading approaches.  We will employ a systems lens to consider the application and value of sustainable agriculture from ecological, societal and farmer perspectives to present a practical path forward. More information on the course can be found at:  http://eices.columbia.edu/education-training/certificate/, or email eices@columbia.edu.

1 Jules Pretty, “Can Ecological Agriculture Feed Nine Billion People?” Monthly Review, November 2009, http://monthlyreview.org/2009/11/01/can-ecological-agriculture-feed-nine-billion-people/

2 Frances Moore Lappé, “Farming for a Small Planet: Agroecology Now,” Great Transition Initiative, April 2016, http://www.greattransition.org/publication/farming-for-a-small-planet

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