May 8, 2021
Planet-Friendly Agriculture: It’s “Farming,” not “Harming”
A female hand edited to have the texture of trees holds a young sapling out towards a young butterfly and a baby’s handsSource: Adobe Stock
Beyond the “modern-day necessities” — cars, gas, electricity, and TikTok — the historically fundamental necessity, farming, contributes to a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. These emissions arise from agricultural practices, forestry, and land-use changes.
… Oh, and cow farts (or rather, their burps). Lest we forget the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that 14.5 percent of GHG emissions come from livestock, with cattle contributing to more than half of those emissions.
Since not-farming is not an option (and we can’t expect cows to never be gassy, even with dietary interventions), it’s high time for a sustainability overhaul of the agricultural industry: planet-friendly farming.
“As per projections from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agricultural production has to be doubled by the year 2050 to feed a global population of about 9.7 billion. However, this intensification must be done in an ecological way (not at the cost of planetary resilience)…”— P.K. Dubey et al., (2021)
Agriculture and planetary resilience (a.k.a., how much abuse Earth can take before something catastrophic ensues) exist in a sort of tug-o-war.
As explained in a 2021 Current Research in Environmental Sustainability review, farming and food production contribute to global warming, but they’re also negatively affected by it. Climate change is accelerated by the mismanagement of agroecosystems, but climate change can cause extreme weather events (flooding, steep and sudden temperature changes, etc…) that reduce crop yields.
However, the authors propose multiple sustainable agricultural solutions, including:
- Crop diversification
- Utilizing neglected wild plants
- Inventive farming practices to reduce the agricultural water footprint
- Lοw-external input system agriculture (LEISA)
The authors also highlight that these practices align with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, such as
- No poverty
- Zero hunger
- Good health and well-being
- Gender equality
- Responsible consumption and production
- Climate action
Planet-Friendly Farming: Crop Diversification
Aerial drone image of fields with diverse crop growth based on principle of polyculture and permaculture – a healthy farming method of ecosystemSource: Adobe Stock
In short, crop diversification means growing a variety of edible plant species in a single space, rather than just farming one plant or “monocropping.”
Despite the thousands of known edible plant species, modern farming practices revolve around rice-wheat or maize-based cropping patterns. This has caused the diversity of crops to dwindle to a very limited number of species.
Not only does this mean less variety on your dinner table, but the lack of genetic diversity puts these crops at serious risk of pest infestations and pathogens. Why?
Well, if a farm uses acres and acres to farm just one specific plant species, the pest or pathogen can spread rapidly from plant to plant. Planting a single species means they have the same vulnerable, receptive genes that make them the ideal host for something harmful to wipe out the fields.
The lack of diversity also decreases the crops’ resilience to climate change, since it’s harder for the plant to adapt if it has to keep interbreeding with its own species.
However, multicropping with a mix of cereals, millets, legumes, pulses, vegetables, nuts, tubers, and medicinal plants, reduces these risks. Crop diversification also helps maintain soil and water quality, increases food security, and creates higher farm returns.
In other words, multicropping is a win-win situation… Right?
“There are still debates in the scientific community as to the level of diversification appropriate for improving dietary diversity and farming incomes,” explains the Current Research in Environmental Sustainability review. “Few researchers have pointed out diversification is location/regional specific, whereas accessibility is the key factor governing the diet diversity.”
However, as our awareness and research on multicropping increases, clearer recommendations can be made for farmers across various regions in the future.
Utilizing Neglected Wild Plants
“The role of neglected and underutilized plants are enormous and complimentary for attaining food and nutrition security, as wild edibles are endowed with vitamins, minerals, proteins, fibers, amino acids, etc…,” the review adds. “Therefore, such wild species can be projected as a natural treasure-trove of nutrients for averting malnutrition through dietary diversification.”
Due to the natural challenges these neglected plants face in the wild, these species are incredibly hardy and resilient. Their hardiness makes them a great candidate for “future smart crops,” as these species have the genes to weather through extreme climate conditions.
The biggest challenge in utilizing neglected wild plants is how little we know about them. Understanding the potential nutritional benefits of incorporating them as crops would require “large-scale exploration of such species” in various agricultural regions, as well as detailed nutritional profiling.
But if you think about it, going on a foraging mission to better understand the fruits of Mother Nature’s labor for the sake of saving the planet is beautiful
(and pretty badass). Sure, it would take resources — such as funding, gathering teams of botanists and ecologists, mapping out which regions to explore, and so forth — but it’s a rewarding effort with a positive message at its core.
Reducing the Agricultural Water Footprint
“Agriculture is by far the largest user of water.”— M.M. Mekonnen & W. Gerbens-Leenes (2020)
Experts estimate the global water footprint ranges from 5,938 to 8,508 km3 annually. For context, an Olympic-sized swimming pool is 0.00000250 km3. So the global water footprint ranges from about 2.4 billion to 3.4 billion Olympic-sized swimming pools annually.
All-in-all, this averages out to agriculture accounting for 70 percent of freshwater usage annually, the World Bank Reports.
Furthermore, global water usage is expected to increase by at least 22 percent before the end of the century, considering that agricultural production has to double within the next 30 years to feed the human population.
As the authors of the Current Research in Environmental Sustainability review note, there are a variety of ways to reduce the global water footprint of agriculture. These innovations range from simple modifications, such as mulching, to more technologically advanced ones like solar irrigation pumps or sustainable rainwater harvesting.
Rainwater harvesting at Heronbrook Farm in Derbyshire, UKSource: ALL our water is FREE! – how does our rainwater harvesting system work? | Heronbrook Farm
Mulching helps soil retain moisture, which increases agricultural productivity while decreasing water usage. If the soil retains moisture for longer, it would require less frequent watering.
Solar irrigation pumps are more environmentally friendly, and they can increase agricultural output in regions of the world where there aren’t electricity grids to bolster farming efforts, says a Solar Magazine article.
The adoption of these eco-friendly farming techniques in addition to diversifying with climate adaptive and less water-consuming crops, “will further reduce the water footprint in the agriculture sector significantly,” the Current Research in Environmental Sustainability review explains.
Low-External Input System/Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA)
“Low-external-input sustainable agriculture (LEISA) is a practice that reduces external inputs by utilizing ecosystem resources,” explains an article by Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. These practices reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides by taking advantage of natural alternatives.
It doesn’t mean the abolishment of synthetic products, Biocyclopedia notes. But using poultry litter in place of nitrogen fertilizers, growing crops in compost, or implementing living mulch can reduce the need for conventional, external, synthetic supplies.
“The wide-scale implementation of LEISA [could] catalyze the transition towards a low-carbon, biobased agricultural enterprise while fostering circularity and sustainability,” the Current Research in Environmental Sustainability review adds.
Doing Your Part: Reducing Food Waste
Close-up photograph of raspberries with googly eyes on a wooden railingSource: Adobe Stock
Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or turn your nose up at the sight of veggies, everything we consume relies on agriculture to some degree. Even the meat you eat requires land and crops to raise and feed the cattle.
You don’t have to be a farmer to reduce the ecological footprint of food production. Food waste is a major piece of the puzzle, too.
“[It’s] estimated that each year, one-third of all food produced in the world for human consumption never reached the consumer’s table,” the UN FAO states. “This not only means a missed opportunity for the economy and food security, but also a waste of all-natural resources used for growing, processing, packaging, transporting, and marketing food.”
“If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitting country in the world.”— “Food Wastage Footprint & Climate Change” via the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
More often than not, produce is rejected from big-box grocers due to being misshapen, scarred, discolored, or simply due to the grocery store already having a surplus of a specific product. The same applies to meats that are too small or aren’t “the right cut,” or snacks (like nuts) that are misshapen, as well.
Rather than letting the perfectly edible yet aesthetically imperfect food go to waste, companies like Imperfect Foods allow consumers to purchase these products at a discount.
Imperfect Foods, in particular, allows you to customize weekly grocery deliveries based on your household’s diet and needs. They carry a variety of produce, meat, meat & dairy alternatives, snacks, beverages, baked goods, and household products, so you can do the bulk of your grocery shopping directly through them.
This doesn’t mean you’ll never have to go to a grocery store again, per se, but it allows you to save time, money, and reduce food waste by purchasing delicious products that otherwise would’ve been tossed due to having a few quirks (or a surplus).
Although online grocers like Imperfect Foods aren’t eligible for accepting SNAP benefits, they offer a reduced-cost box program to make eating healthy and sustainably more affordable.
The Burgundy Zine is in no way sponsored by Imperfect Foods, but you are more than welcome to use my referral code to receive $80 in free groceries. When you use this code, editor burgundy bug (the author of this article) will receive $30 towards her next order, too.
If Imperfect Foods doesn’t deliver to your area, there are similar companies you could try out, as well.
Reducing food waste doesn’t just stop there, either. It also means making sure you actually consume what you purchase. And honestly, this is probably the most fun part about reducing food waste, as it encourages you to get crafty with your recipes.
Experiment with your dishes by adding a few extra vegetables from the back of your fridge to the mix! Or, if you notice you bought wayyy more fruit than your family can realistically consume in a week, dehydrate them! Dehydrating your extra fruit makes for a tasty, delicious snack, and it extends the life of your produce.
‘The farting cow’ – a cow with a cloud, near Worth Matravers, Jurassic Coast, Dorset, UKSource: Adobe Stock
Farming doesn’t have to entail harming the environment — but at the current rate of unsustainable agricultural practices and food waste, the future isn’t looking too bright.
To increase agricultural output and make sure the Earth is intact for future generations, sustainable farming practices must be popularized and promoted to advocate for planet-friendly farming.
The review discussed throughout this article provides practical, effective sustainable solutions, including crop diversification (multicropping), utilizing neglected wild plant species, mulching, solar irrigation pumps, sustainable rainwater harvesting, and low-external input system agriculture (LEISA).
There are many resources available online to learn more about sustainable farming practices, how to make your farm more eco-friendly, and how to advocate for sustainable farming.
But for those of you who live in the city (like me), there are ways we can do our part, too. Namely, by reducing our food waste.
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