First celebrated almost 50 years ago on April 22, 1970, Earth Day has provided information about our planet’s precious resources and served as a call to action to address environmental challenges. At a time when the world’s resources are being polluted, debilitated and used up at increasingly alarming rates, Earth Day 2018 is an opportunity to communicate the importance of sustainable agriculture for protecting the planet.
There is no other system with the scale, ability and immediacy to preserve biodiversity and protect the environment than sustainable agriculture. Traditional farmers, innovative practitioners, scientists and indigenous land managers are designing and managing diverse types of agroecology—or ‘eco-agriculture’—systems that generate positive co-benefits for food production, the environment and rural communities. These systems require an intimate knowledge of the local environment and natural resource management and utilise ecological concepts to build optimal relationships between plants, animals, humans and the environment.
What if governments committed to investing in these food and farming systems and supported and rewarded these types of farmers, or rather, custodians of the Earth? The current and dominant industrial agriculture model— heavily dependent on synthetic chemical fertilisers and pesticides, fossil fuel-powered farm machinery and the concentration of animals into crowded indoor facilities—has undeniably contributed to numerous forms of environmental degradation. But there is increasing recognition that a regenerative, sustainable farming sector can provide multiple environmental benefits and ecosystem services while sustaining farmer livelihoods and rural employment.
This Earth Day, let’s consider the role that food and agriculture play in the health of our planet. Here are five ways that sustainable farming systems can help feed the world and protect the environment.
1. Advancing Climate Action: Sustainable agriculture practices can effectively reduce and even offset greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Rodale Institute, “we could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices.” Farmers and ranchers are already adopting practices that reduce emissions and sequester carbon in the soil, from diversifying crops to more efficiently balance nutrients to increasing soil organic matter to draw carbon into the Earth. These practices also have the important co-benefits of improving agricultural productivity and resilience to future fluctuations in weather.
2. Boosting Biodiversity: The relationship between agriculture and biodiversity is twofold—first, there is biodiversity within farmland landscapes, including the diversity of soil microbes, insects and wildlife, and second, there is biodiversity of crops and animals, or agrobiodiversity. ‘Wildlife-friendly farming’ that enhances or creates wildlife habitats on farmland can achieve large biodiversity increases in rare plant, bee and bird species. Agrobiodiversity is also important for food security—if a particular crop variety fails due to extreme weather, pests or disease, another variety might survive and help improve overall resilience of the farm.
3. Conservation Cornerstone: Farming claims close to 40 percent of the Earth’s land, making on-farm conservation critical for the preservation of plant and animal genetic resources. According to research by the Canadian Wildlife Service, “agricultural lands have the potential to play a much more positive role in the maintenance of biodiversity, especially in those areas where there are competing, more disruptive land uses such as urbanisation.” Non-crop habitats on farmland have been identified as significant for the maintenance of plant species diversity, for the conservation of beneficial pollinating and predatory insects, and as essential habitat for birds.
4. Enhancing Ecosystems: Sustainably managed farmland can produce a variety of ecosystem services, such as the regulation of soil, air and water quality, which in turn enhance vital farming services like pollination and pest control. Agricultural systems that support ecosystem services can increase beneficial biological interactions between plants and the farming landscape, having positive effects on soil structure and organic matter, nutrient cycling, weed management and control of pests and diseases.
5. Valuing Vital Culture and Knowledge: Agroecosystems cannot be sustainable in the long-term without the expert knowledge and skilled labour needed to manage them successfully. Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) are keeping food histories alive by showcasing the harmonious relationship between nature and the agricultural systems of our ancestors. According to the FAO, “a GIAHS is a living, evolving system of human communities in an intricate relationship with their territory, cultural or agricultural landscape…that combine agriculture and heritage, sustainability and livelihoods, environmental sensitivity and adaptation to climate change.” The preservation of traditional forms of farming knowledge and practices that underpin these systems help maintain biodiversity, enhance food security, and protect the world’s natural resources.
Spreading the word, feeding the world, protecting the planet.
This Earth Day, share the message that agriculture should be at the centre of environmental sustainability.
Photo courtesy of Future Feeders.