Rethinking Sustainable Agriculture

In these times, the term sustainable development is being applied to nearly everything from energy, clean water, construction, to economic growth. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to question either the basic assumptions behind sustainable development or the way these assumptions are being put to use.

This is no more evident than in the case of agriculture, where sustainably is often the only way to measure progress. Historical and cultural perspectives are often not taken into account when measuring progress.

It is a well known fact that agriculture has played an important role in history and that since the dawn of civilization, agriculture has changed dramatically and will continue to change in the future. In earlier times, agriculture served to feed, clothe and shelter a very rural society with a population density that is much less than we see today. Agriculture then had a minimal effect on biodiversity, and the pollution generated was very much localized.

The methods used in this type of agriculture were very inefficient in terms of use of energy and the nutrients that were captured in the products that were produced.

The dawn of the industrial revolution led to major changes in agricultural methods. Overseas farmers began to create competition, causing local farmers to begin growing specialized crops and employing new methods to increase their yields.

The major benefit of this competition was that food prices dropped, the food was safer and the products were more reliable. The demand for these products also increased. Unfortunately, with those improvements came habitat loss and diminished biodiversity.

Along with an increased demand for agricultural products came a demand for more animal products. This demand is growing at such a rate that millions of additional tons of grain will be needed to sustain this demand. This increased demand for grain to feed these animals raises a new problem.

With the growth of cites and populations the amount of water that is available for agriculture and animal product production is being limited.

As the method of growing crops has changed from the pre-industrialized era, the future of agriculture in the future will again be very different.

As the world population increases, the need for environmentally sustainable practices changes and radical new methods need to be developed. Many of the current practices that focus on the need to produce high yields will be abandoned. The focus will shift to looking at the pros and cons of how land is used, the impact on the environment, the effect on water quality, the carbon footprint, the impact on biodiversity.

Along with the globalization of agriculture, comes the cost and environmental impact that transportation plays. The amount of carbon released into the environment due to the transportation of food goods is now being closely examined. No longer is purchasing food goods from foreign countries the “green” thing to do.

We could see a shift towards purchasing local products to offset the carbon generated by the massive transportation system needed to move food goods to consumers.  

Beverly Saltonstall is an environmental writer. Visit for news, podcasts, articles and guides on issues such as global warming, recycling, sustainability, and more. For an in-depth look at Sustainable Development, read Our Planet is in Danger. (available on website)

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