Hello Everyone and welcome to Episode 7 of the series where we will explore the term ‘Sustainable Agriculture’ and related topics. Joining me on this today is my colleague Klemen.
Hi everybody. This is a very big topic and we will explain unsustainable practices, organic agriculture and local food as well as the concerns people have. Perhaps you could start Victor by describing the current agricultural practices in most farms and the terms used.
Currently, the most common form of agriculture globally is called Industrial agriculture sometimes called intensive agriculture and this is focussed on the highest outputs or yields and the lowest food prices. This is where there is often only one crop planted in a field every year and high output is achieved by the use of artificial or synthetic fertilizers. A lot of chemicals are used on the crops to control pests and diseases and many people have concerns about the long-term affect these chemicals have on our health. The animals on such farms are often kept in very unnatural conditions – remaining indoors all the time, in very confined areas and fed food that forces their growth rather than what is natural for them. Disease is controlled through the heavy use of antibiotics and chemical sprays. This type of farming is often owned by large corporations that can use economic subsidies and grant payments to force down the price of food and many small farmers cannot compete and so go out of business. This is all very unsustainable.
Is this what is known as Factory Farming?
Well, that term is used only when referring animals and not crops. It is where perhaps thousands of animals are kept in very cramped conditions and they never get to feed on natural grasslands. Another term used, particularly in relation to industrial egg-laying hens is battery caged or battery farmed because the cages in which the hens are confined are very close together like the cells in a battery. Many people are greatly concerned about the affects these practices have on animal welfare.
So what is the term used for intensive crop growing farms?
We would often use the term ‘mono-culture’ and this refers to the practice of planting the same type of crop in a field many years in a row. This causes the soil to get very weak and the response is to use a huge amount of fertilizers to force growth and higher outputs. Mono-culture also has the danger of increasing plant diseases and pests so this is why so many synthetic chemicals are used on such crops.
Incidentally, the negative of industrial agriculture is not ‘un-industrial agriculture’ but generally we just use the term sustainable. However, the opposite term for intensive agriculture is ‘extensive agriculture’ that is more spread out with fewer animals supported by each hectare of land or less output of crops per hectare.
Okay, there are a lot of problems with the current system for sure. So let’s turn and look at sustainable agriculture and the terms used there. Firstly, can you describe the bigger picture of what sustainable agriculture is?
Sustainable agriculture is an umbrella term that covers a lot of different practices and methodologies within agriculture. It is about producing food without the use of so many antibiotics, synthetic chemicals and fertilizers. It aims to allow farm animals to live a more natural lifestyle and so improve animal welfare. Through these practices it can support individual farmers, local communities and promote better public health. Generally, it is the opposite of Industrial agriculture and it is often driven from a concern for the environment.
There are a lot of debates about what exactly is sustainable – for instance, as producing a kilo of meat uses far more resources than a kilo of crops would it be more sustainable to reduce meat production.
And it should be said that many people question the ability of sustainable agriculture systems to feed a world with 7 billion people.
I have another question for you Victor is it right to say that sustainable agriculture is the same as organic farming?
No, that is a common misunderstanding. Organic farming is a system of farming that does not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides and is only one of the methodologies of sustainable agriculture. The primary driver to ‘go organic’ is the concern for the health issues of using synthetic chemicals in agriculture and then eating the food produced. Under the organic system, healthy soil is promoted through the use of crop rotation and natural fertilizers. Disease or pest control on both crops and animals is achieved through the use of better practices and more natural medicines. Animals farmed using the organic methods have strictly controlled food, are not given growth hormones or antibiotics and are allowed the freedom to behave more naturally. As the wider social issues included in sustainable agriculture are not necessarily addressed under the organic system, you could have very large corporations farming organically. Big commercial organic producers supply into the supermarket system. There is a big emphasis on Certification of organic foodstuffs with lots of different models globally as the producer and the consumer are often not in close contact.
The opposite of organic is ‘inorganic’ not un-organic, however we don’t use the term inorganic in relation to agriculture because it has some very specific meanings in chemistry – so the term we use in this context for the opposite of organic is ‘non-organic’.
Okay, so there are concerns about the environment and about the health issues of current practices, are there any others?
Well, the other big concern is around the economic model. Many people are concerned how large industrial agriculture businesses are supplying food to the large out-of-town supermarkets and the effect this is having on local jobs, shops and communities. This has led to the rise of the ‘local’ food movement in the past few years and the growth of local or farmers’ markets where producers sell directly to the customers. The primary concern here is health of the local economy and community. Local markets help restore trust in the food system and connects people to the food they eat and that in turn supports their understanding of sustainability.
Sustainable agriculture is all about healthy soil, producing healthy crops and animals which in turn support healthy people and communities.
That concludes this episode of the series. Obviously the topics of agriculture and food will feature again in future episodes as we explore sustainability in its many forms. Thanks to Klemen for his help on this episode and to you for listening. We hope you found the information helpful and we look forward to you joining us again throughout the series.