Sustainability in agriculture, what’s that mean? Well, putting aside the complicated definitions it means we all want to be able to have healthy food, and clean air and water available for several generations to come. While that part is simple, how we, both as farmers and as people that buy food, reach that goal is not quite so clear.
So what is part of sustainable farming? How do farmers and ranchers navigate through the myriad of techniques to become the most sustainable? While there are a host of ways to accomplish this, there are three general guidelines: 1) Research all the available options, 2) Implement what works the best on your farm, 3) Use sound science to measure the results and change accordingly.
Notice what’s not included? Blanket solutions. Not every practice works well in every state, or on every farm in a state. For example, the brahman cattle breed or a brahman breed cross is a great choice in Florida or Texas, where their insect tolerance and heat resistance help them cope better with that environment. However, using them up in North Dakota would be less than ideal, as they do not tolerate the cold as well as other breeds of cattle, like Angus or Herefords.
Farmers and ranchers know these things, so they make a lot of the choices they do for their farms based on what works for them, using sound science to justify or modify their practices. This doesn’t mean that agriculture doesn’t change as new information is discovered.
Cattle, for example, were smaller in the 1950s, averaging 1000 lbs a cow. They’ve increased in size today, but now it seems they’ve gotten too big and the size is being brought down again. By working to continuously improve our practices, farmers and ranchers will always be tweaking the program in an attempt to make things just a bit better.
While I will be the first to admit we don’t have everything perfect in agriculture, problems arise when non-scientific solutions are pushed on farmers and ranchers by outside sources. This isn’t to say that being concerned about food production or the environment is a bad thing, but rather that a politicized campaign under the banner of “sustainability” can have unintended consequences that actually harm sustainable agriculture.
Consider the use of genetically modified crops (GMOs). While they have the potential to provide disease resistant plants, that are resistant to drought, and provide a better nutritional profile, they have been maligned as “dangerous” despite a plethora of scientific evidence to the contrary. While activists claim we will increase sustainability by banning GMOs, the most likely outcome would be an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the conversion of forests and grasslands to cropland.
Which once again brings us back to the determination of agriculture sustainability. It’s not going to look the same on every farm. Likely it will include some traditional methods of farming, coupled with newer techniques. However it is done, the key is to always be looking for way to improve, so as to conserve the air, water, and food supply for generations to come.