Sustainability: a Philosophy, a Goal
By Becky Gailey
By 2050, the world's population will have doubled but the amount of land and water for agricultural use will have remained the same or even decreased. How will the world be able to feed these people? University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor Charles Francis, sustainable agriculture coordinator for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, is working to find the answer to this question. The only problem is, there is not one simple answer.
"Most folks are looking for a menu," Francis said. "They would prefer to have sustainable agriculture mean 'this set of practices.' It's really more of a philosophy and a goal. Sustainable agriculture is looking for ways to keep agriculture going indefinitely to sustain us as a human species, but to also sustain an environment where we'd like to live and raise our kids."
This means maintaining the fabric of rural communities and diversifying farming operations, he added.
Francis said rural communities provide the backbone for sustainable agriculture, but a 2009 study by UNL Extension Professor Randy Cantrell for the University of Nebraska Rural Initiative, reported that 73 of Nebraska's 93 counties experienced population loss between 2000 and 2007 as farming operations have become more consolidated, chain stores have shut down local entrepreneurs and young people have left home looking for greater opportunities. Buying farming equipment from Illinois because it is less expensive has short-term benefits, but Francis asked what the long-term effects on a community are when consumers no longer patronize local businesses.
"Until we start looking at those kinds of questions and look at ways we can sustain our communities and keep people there, we're going to have a continual drain of the most vital resources we have, which is people, from rural areas," Francis said.
As more people leave the land and private-ownership of farms decreases, so does agricultural sustainability, Francis said. In an article on sustainable agriculture written in 2004 for The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, Francis wrote that agriculture based on family-farm ownership and entrepreneurship will stabilize food production and conserve resources. Along with supporting the surrounding community, which will in turn support them, family operations look beyond short-term gains to the long-term effects their decisions will have, Francis wrote. Large farms with short-term lease agreements, however, provide little incentive for farmers to plan for the future and conserve resources.
"Agriculture that depends on distant ownership and minimum-wage jobs does not promote conservation of natural or human resources. Building systems that add value to products locally, that generate both food and income for local residents, and that cycle dollars around the community, rather than extracting them from the land and people, can lead to a more sustainable agriculture and food system for the Great Plains," Francis wrote.
One issue affecting agriculture, according to Francis, is its reliance on monoculture, which can be defined as growing one crop over a wide area. Although this practice helps increase production, it drains resources.
Research into Crop Diversity and Sustainability
Francis said a more sustainable farming technique is planting a diversity of crops together in one field. He and other UNL researchers are currently exploring different farming methods and crop combinations that will lead to more sustainable agriculture. A major emphasis in the research is planting a variety of crops in the same field and then rotating the crops every season. Francis said these methods can help decrease problems of soil infertility, soil erosion and crop loss from disease. Researchers are currently experimenting with mixtures of two to eight different species in one field to see how they complement each other and how they survive year to year.
"Our current misguided philosophy is that if we just produce more food there'll be enough for everybody," Francis said. "When you think about it, we really have just about enough food to feed everyone right now, but it's not distributed now. We have a lot of food going to waste . . . [and that] can be solved by getting away from single crops and large fields, away from monoculture."
Transportation Costs and Sustainability
Although the global food system is convenient, Francis predicts that local food systems will prevail in a more sustainable future. The current food system depends on transporting food long distances, which Francis said is unsustainable because it undermines local production, increases the amount of food ruined during transportation and requires more energy. A 2003 study by the Leopold Center on Sustainable Agriculture determined that locally-grown produce traveled an average of 56 miles to reach its buyers, whereas conventional produce traveled almost 1,494 miles to reach the same destinations. Francis said agriculture should move toward peri-urban farming, or having a greenbelt around the perimeter of cities where crops and small animals could be cultivated to feed the nearby population.
"The sustainable farm is something extremely special and unique to each place," Francis said. "We've tried to go the other direction. We've tried to homogenize the production environment, make it the same everywhere . . . But that's really the wrong direction."
Instead of looking for the miracle crop that can be planted anywhere and will produce mass quantities of food, Francis and his fellow researchers are exploring what crops grow best in different ecoregions based on temperature, rainfall and other factors.
Rather than trying to homogenize production, Francis said mixing together compatible combinations of crops and animals suitable for the surrounding environment, just as nature has done, will create a more sustainable future.
"Where this is going is to think more of how we can adapt our crops and our systems to each location rather than spending massive money on fertilizer, water, other inputs to modify every place to make them all the same. So the ideal farm is the one that is a mixture of crops, animals, a wide diversity of crops. That's sort of the opposite of the direction we've sort of gone for quite a few decades here."
Francis also said that humanity has a deep faith in the ability of technology to solve all problems. After working in impoverished parts of Africa and South America for many years, Francis said he has seen that methods that work in one place cannot just be transplanted to other regions and expect similar results, which is another reason why monoculture will not make for a global, sustainable society.
"You realize solutions are not universal; they have to be unique to each place," Francis said. "And we can learn that from nature. Nature tells us over and over again, that each niche is different and we have to treat that niche differently."
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