Sustainable agriculture provides high yields without undermining the natural systems and resources that productivity depends on. Farmers who take a sustainable approach work efficiently with natural processes rather than ignoring or struggling against them – and use the best of current knowledge and technology to avoid the unintended consequences of industrial, chemical-based agriculture. One important result is that farmers are able to minimize their use of pesticides and fertilizers, thereby saving money and protecting future productivity, as well as the environment.
Below are some of the most common sustainable agriculture techniques employed by farmers today to achieve the key goals of weed control, pest control, disease control, erosion control and high soil quality:
- Crop Rotation
- Cover Crops
- Soil Enrichment
- Natural Pest Predators
- Biointensive Integrated Pest Management
Many farmers also take advantage of the benefits of having plants growing in the soil at all times, rather than leaving the ground bare between cropping periods, which produces unintended problems. The planting of cover crops such as hairy vetch, clover, or oats helps farmers achieve the basic goals of:
- preventing soil erosion,
- suppressing weeds, and
- enhancing soil quality.
Using appropriate cover crops is worth the extra effort because it reduces the need for chemical inputs like herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers.
Soil is arguably the single most prized element of agricultural ecosystems. Healthy soil teems with life, including many beneficial microbes and insects, but these are often killed off by the overuse of pesticides. Good soils can improve yields and produce robust crops less vulnerable to pests; abused soils often require heavy fertilizer application to produce high yields. Soil quality can be maintained and enhanced in many ways, including leaving crop residues in the field after harvest, plowing under cover crops, or adding composted plant material or animal manure.
Natural Pest Predators
Understanding a farm as an ecosystem rather than a factory offers exciting opportunities for effective pest control. For example, many birds, insects, and spiders are natural predators of agricultural pests. Managing farms so that they harbor populations of pest predators is a sophisticated and effective pest-control technique. One of the unfortunate consequences of intensive use of chemical pesticides is the indiscriminate killing of birds, bats, and other pest predators.
Biointensive Integrated Pest Management
One of the most promising technologies is the control of pests through integrated pest management (IPM). This approach relies to the greatest possible extent on biological rather than chemical measures, and emphasizes the prevention of pest problems with crop rotation; the reintroduction of natural, disease-fighting microbes into plants/soil, and release of beneficial organisms that prey on the pests. Once a particular pest problem is identified, responses include the use of sterile males, biocontrol agents like ladybugs. Chemical pesticides are only used as a last resort.