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14.4: Sustainable Agriculture

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    Sustainable agriculture is a method of farming that does not deplete natural resources or degrade the environment and can therefore be continued indefinitely. Sustainable farms often rely on components of local ecosystems. For example, they might promote conditions for natural decomposition of wastes or employ natural enemies to control pests through predation or competition. More specifically, the 1977 and 1990 “Farm Bills” describe sustainable agriculture as "an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

    • satisfy human food and fiber needs;
    • enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends;
    • make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;
    • sustain the economic viability of farm operations;
    • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."

    Promoting biodiversity is key to sustainable agriculture, and high biodiversity results intact ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling and regulation of pest populations. This is consistent with the goal of sustainable agriculture: to mimic the processes found in natural ecosystems. In contrast to the monocultures of industrial agriculture, polyculture farming is a common practice in sustainable agriculture. This assists with regulating pests and maintaining soil fertility (see below). Seed banks, locations at which many different types of seeds are stored, are key to conserving the genetic diversity of crops. These storage sites are cold enough to keep seeds frozen naturally (figure \(\PageIndex{a}\)).

    A narrow rectangular building is partially buried in a snowy hillside, keeping the seeds inside the vault cool.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{a}\): The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Image by Miksu (CC-BY-SA).

    Integrated Pest Management

    Integrated Pest Management (IPM) refers to a mix of farmer-driven, ecologically-based pest control practices that seek to reduce reliance on synthetic chemical pesticides. It uses several methods simultaneously to control pest populations. The steps of integrated pest management are to (1) identify true pests, (2) set thresholds and monitor (figure \(\PageIndex{b}\)), and (3) develop an action plan. As many insects, microbes, and other organisms found in an agricultural area have a neutral or beneficial effect, it is not necessary to remove them. True pests are those that are causing economic harm, and they are managed (kept below economically damaging levels) rather than eradicated.

    Two individuals inspect an insect trap as part of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) conservation practice
    Figure \(\PageIndex{b}\): A retired Navy commander and landowner inspect an insect trap as part of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) conservation practice. Image by NRCS (public domain).

    An IPM Action Plan draws on four types of control: cultural, mechanical, biological, and chemical. These methods are listed in order of least to most environmental impact and are thus applied in this order. For example, cultural control is attempted first. If that is not effective, mechanical control is added to the plan, and so on. Chemical control is used as a last resort and is deemphasized in an IPM plan. When pesticides must be used, they are selected and applied in a way that minimizes adverse effects on beneficial organisms, humans, and the environment. It is commonly understood that applying an IPM approach does not necessarily mean eliminating pesticide use, although this is often the case because pesticides are often over-used for a variety of reasons.

    An Alternative to Spraying: Bollworm Control in Shandong

    Farmers in Shandong (China) have been using innovative methods to control bollworm infestation in cotton when this insect became resistant to most pesticides. Among the control measures implemented were:

    1. The use of pest resistant cultivars and interplanting of cotton with wheat or maize.
    2. Use of lamps and poplar twigs to trap and kill adults to lessen the number of adults.
    3. If pesticides were used, they were applied on parts of the cotton plant’s stem rather than by spraying the whole field (to protect natural enemies of the bollworm).

    These and some additional biological control tools have been effective in controlling insect populations and insect resistance, protecting surroundings and lowering costs.

    Cultural Control

    Cultural control refers to minimizing the conditions that allow pests to thrive and spread. Examples include alternating which crops are planted each year (crop rotation), planting multiple types of crops near each other (intercropping; figure \(\PageIndex{c}\)), selecting pest-resistant varieties, and planting pest-free rootstock (underground plant parts). Crop rotation prevents pests that are specialized to a particular type of crop from continuing year after year because their host plants are only available in certain years. Similarly, intercropping spatially limits the spread of pests. Strip cropping is a type of intercropping that involves growing different types of crops in alternating rows. Pests may infest one (or several) rows of their host species, but they would have to move past multiple rows of non-hosts to access additional host plants. Additionally, cultural control can involve optimizing irrigation and fertilizer application to promote plant defense and limit disease spread. Cultural control methods can be very effective and cost-efficient and present little to no risk to people or the environment. 

    Alternating rows of broad-leafed bitter melon plants and rice plants, which consist of many narrow leaves.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{c}\): Momordica charantia (bitter melon) intercropped with rice in the Philippines (cultural control). Bitter melon plants emerge from holes in plastic, which is used for mechanical control of weeds. Image by Judgefloro (CC-BY-SA).

    Mechanical Control

    Mechanical control refers to physically removing pests or excluding them with barriers (figure \(\PageIndex{d}\)). Mechanical controls that remove pests include sticky insect traps, mole traps, and removing weeds by hand. Netting to exclude birds, deer fencing, and weed cloth, plastic weed barriers (figure \(\PageIndex{c}\)) or mulch are additional examples of mechanical control.

    A solar insect trap is a yellow bowl-shaped dish supported by a post. Above the dish is a LED UV light with a solar panel.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{d}\): This solar insect trap is an example of mechanical control. It emits ultraviolet light to attract insects and is recharged using small solar panels. Image by MGK Solar Trap (CC-BY-SA).

    Biological Control

    Biological control is the use of organisms to reduce pest populations (also see Invasive Species). One biological control strategy involves releasing natural enemies, such as predators, parasites, or parasitoids of the pest organisms (parasitoids are similar to parasites, but they consistently kill their hosts). Home gardeners can also rely on natural enemies by purchasing preying mantises, ladybugs (ladybird beetles), or lacewings for release (figure \(\PageIndex{e}\)). Successful examples include ladybird beetles to depress aphid populations, parasitoid wasps to control whiteflies, and fungi, such as Trichoderma, to suppress fungal-caused plant diseases. 

    A lacewing perched on a leaf has a long, green body with spots and four, transparent, veiny wings.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{e}\): Lacewings are natural predators of garden and crop pests. Image by artsehn/Pixabay (Pixabay license).

    If not used carefully, chemical control can have unintended negative consequences for biological control. In 1887, the cottony cushion scale (native to Australia) was devastating the citrus groves of California. A U.S. entomologist went to Australia to find a natural enemy and came back with the vedalia beetle, a species of ladybird beetle. Released in California, the beetle quickly brought the scale under control, at least until 1946. In that year, the pest made a dramatic comeback. This coincided with the first use of the now-banned pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) in the groves. Not only did DDT kill the target pest insects, but it killed the vedalia beetle as well. Only by altering spray procedures and reintroducing the beetle was the scale insect again controlled. 

    Another strategy for biological control involves releasing sterile males, which compete with fertile males for mates, ultimately decreasing pest population size. This technique was first applied against the screwworm fly, a serious pest of cattle (figure \(\PageIndex{f}\)). The female flies lay their eggs in sores or other open wounds on the animals. After hatching, the larvae eat the tissues of their host. As they do so, they expose a still larger area to egg laying, often finally killing the host.

    A screwworm fly has a black, shiny body, transparent wings, and large orange eyes. It perches on a leaf.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{f}\): Thought to be eradicated in the United States by 1966, the screwworm fly, a cattle pest, reemerged in deer at Key Deer National Refuge in Florida in 2016. Sterile males were again released, and the pest was eradicated from Florida in 2017. Image by Judy Gallagher (CC-BY).

    Prior to its eradication from the southeastern United States, the screwworm was causing huge annual livestock losses. The sterile male technique involves releasing factory-reared and sterilized flies into the natural population. Sterilization is done by exposing the factory flies to just enough gamma radiation to make them sterile but not enough to reduce their general vigor.

    Starting in early 1958, up to 50 million sterilized flies were released each week from aircraft flying over Florida and parts of the adjoining states. Each time a fertile female in the natural population mated with a sterile male, the female layed sterile eggs. Since the females mate only once, her reproductive career was at an end. By early 1959, the pest was totally eliminated east of the Mississippi River. The problem in southwestern states was more challenging because the fly winters in Mexico and could move across the border with each new season. Even so, by expanding the program to include Mexico as well, the screwworm fly was finally eliminated from Mexico in 1991.

    The sterile male technique also successfully controlled the Mediterranean fruit fly ("medfly"), a destructive fruit fly of citrus, peaches, pears, and apples in California.

    Chemical Control

    Chemical control refers to the use of pesticides. If chemical control is needed, IPM favors highly targeted chemicals, such as pheromones to disrupt pest mating. Pheromones are chemical signals released by animals to communicate with other members of their species. Humans and many insect species alike release pheromones that function in attracting mates. Releasing the pheremones of insect pests can confuse males seeking mates and ultimately hinder them from reproducing (figure \(\PageIndex{g}\)). This "male confusion" has been successful against the pink bollworm that infests cotton and reduced the need for conventional chemical insecticides by 90%. Pheromones have also been successful against pests that attack tomatoes, grapes, and peaches. If targeted chemicals are not effective, IPM may employ conventional pesticides, ideally only applying them to the spots that they are needed and at the lowest effective concentration. Broadcast spraying of non-specific pesticides is a last resort.

    This pheromone trap looks like a small, blue house. The "floor" is sticky and littered with dead moths.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{g}\): This pheromone trap is used to control the Asiatic rice borer. The caterpillars of this moth species infest rice stems. Image by Mehdi (CC-BY-SA).

    Sustainable Practices to Maintain Soil Fertility

    A variety of sustainable practices can maintain soil quality. Many of these strategies have additional benefits such as regulating pests, limiting climate change, and preventing water pollution. These methods enrich the soil with nutrients, ensure proper water holding capacity (ability of the soil to retain water), and limit soil-degrading processes such as erosion and compaction.

    Crop Rotation

    As previously mentioned, crop rotations are planned sequences of different crops over time on the same field (figure \(\PageIndex{h}\)). Rotating crops provides productivity benefits by improving soil nutrient levels and breaking crop pest cycles. Farmers may also choose to rotate crops in order to reduce their production risk through diversification or to manage scarce resources, such as labor, during planting and harvesting. This strategy reduces the pesticide costs by naturally breaking the cycle of weeds, insects and diseases. Also, grass and legumes in a rotation protect water quality by preventing excess nutrients or chemicals from entering water supplies.

    Different crop types are grown in different farm plots. Corn is in the foreground.Raised garden beds each contain a different plant species, when will be rotated each year.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{h}\): Crop rotation can be used at a large agricultural scale (left) or in a smaller garden (right). In each situation, which crop species are planted in each location changes year to year. Left image by USDA (public domain) and right image by Sten Porse (CC-BY-SA).


    Intercropping means growing two or more crops in close proximity to each other during part or all of their life cycles to promote soil improvement, biodiversity, and pest management. Incorporating intercropping principles into an agricultural operation increases diversity and interaction between plants, arthropods, mammals, birds and microorganisms resulting in a more stable crop-ecosystem and a more efficient use of space, water, sunlight, and nutrients (figure \(\PageIndex{i}\)). This collaborative type of crop management mimics nature and is subject to fewer pest outbreaks, improved nutrient cycling and crop nutrient uptake, and increased water infiltration and moisture retention. Soil quality, water quality and wildlife habitat all benefit.

    Tall corn plants with large, linear leaves. Vines of beans with smaller, wider leaves climb up the corn.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{i}\): Intercropping of beans and maize (corn). Beans have root nodules that house nitrogen-fixing bacteria, enriching the soil. Image by AnnaJB (CC-BY-SA).

    A common example of strip cropping (a type of intercropping; see above) involves alternating a row crop such as corn with a ground-covering crop such as alfalfa. The ground-covering crop helps reduce water runoff and traps soil eroded from the row crop. If this ground-covering crop is a member of the legume family such as alfalfa or soybeans and is associated with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, then alternating the strips from one planting to the next can also help maintain topsoil fertility.

    Cover Crops

    Cover crops are those that are planted in the off-season to avoid leaving the soil bare. They can prevent soil and wind erosion, improve soil’s physical and biological properties, supply nutrients, suppress weeds, improve the availability of soil water, and break pest cycles along with various other benefits. Cover crops are often members of the legume family and help enrich the soil with usable nitrogen. A single species or mix of cover crop species may be planted (figure \(\PageIndex{j}\)).

    A tractor mows and rolls dense growth of cover crops
    Figure \(\PageIndex{j}\): A roller (crimper) on a tractor being used to roll down a rye and hairy vetch cover crop in April in the United States. While hairy vetch can limit soil erosion and add nitrogen to the soil, it is also an invasive species that must be carefully managed. Image and caption (modified) from Mr. 1032 (CC-BY-SA).


    Agroforestry is the process of planting rows of trees interspersed with a cash crop (figure \(\PageIndex{k-l}\)). Besides helping to prevent wind and water erosion of the soil, the trees provide shade which helps promote soil moisture retention. Decaying tree litter also provides some nutrients for the interplanted crops. The trees themselves may provide a cash crop. For example, fruit or nut trees may be planted with a grain crop. You can learn more about agroforestry using this interactive site by the United States Department of Agriculture and Forest Service.

    Low-growing crops growing between tall tree trunks
    Figure \(\PageIndex{k}\): Through agroforestry, high-value non-timber crops (food, medicinal plants, woody florals, and crafts) can be cultivated under the protection of a forest canopy that has been managed to provide a favorable crop environment. Image and caption (modified) from USDA/UFS (public domain).

    Contour and Terrace Farming

    Contour farming involves plowing and planting crop rows along the natural contours of gently sloping land (figure \(\PageIndex{l}\)). The lines of crop rows perpendicular to the slope help to slow water runoff, inhibit the formation of channels of water, and limit soil erosion (and the resultant loss of nutrients). Terracing is a common technique used to control water erosion on more steeply sloped hills and mountains (figure \(\PageIndex{l}\)). Broad, level terraces are constructed along the contours of the slopes, and these act as dams trapping water for crops, reducing runoff, and limiting erosion.

    Contour farming. Alternating rows of trees and low-growing crops weave along gentle slopes.Terraces look like wide stairs. On each "stair" is soil with a narrow plot of crops.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{l}\): Contour farming (left) and terracing (right). In contour farming, rows of crops wave perpendicular to the slopes of the land. This example (left) also employs agroforestry. Terrace farming involves making step-like structures (terraces) perpendicular to the incline of a slope to reduce erosion. Left image by Pixture2016 (CC-BY-SA). Right image by USDA (public domain).

    Minimal Tillage and No-till Agriculture

    In modern agricultural practices, heavy machinery is used to prepare the seedbed for planting, to control weeds, and to harvest the crop. The use of heavy equipment has many advantages in saving time and labor, but can cause compaction of soil and disruption of the natural soil organisms. The problem with soil compaction is that increased soil density limits root penetration depth and may inhibit proper plant growth. Another aspect of soil tillage (mixing the soil) is that it may lead to more rapid decomposition of organic matter due to greater soil aeration. Over large areas of farmland, this has the unintended consequence of releasing more carbon and nitrous oxides (greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere, thereby contributing to climate change.

    One of the easiest ways to prevent these problems is to minimize the amount of tillage, or turning over of the soil. In minimal tillage (conservation tillage) or no-till agriculture, the land is disturbed as little as possible by leaving crop residue in the fields (figure \(\PageIndex{m}\)). Special seed drills inject new seeds and fertilizer into the unplowed soil. Tillage of fields does help to break up clods that were previously compacted, so best practices may vary at sites with different soil textures and composition. With proper planning, minimal tillage and no-till agriculture can simultaneously limit soil erosion and compaction, protect soil organisms, reduce costs (if performed correctly), and promote water infiltration. Furthermore, carbon can actually become sequestered into the soil with these methods, thus mitigating climate change. Minimal or no-till agriculture have proved a major success in Latin America and are being used in South Asia and Africa. However, a drawback of this method is that the crop residue can serve as a good habitat for insect pests and plant diseases. 

    Dead plant material rather than bare, freshly tilled soil surrounds rows of crops
    Figure \(\PageIndex{m}\): No-till agriculture is an important tool to prevent loss of soil moisture. Image by USDA (public domain).


    Creating windbreaks by planting tall trees along the perimeter of farm fields can help control the effects of wind erosion of soil (figure \(\PageIndex{n}\)). Windbreaks reduce wind speed at ground level, an important factor in wind erosion. They also help trap snow in the winter months, leaving soil less exposed. As a side benefit, windbreaks also provide a habitat for birds and animals. One drawback is that windbreaks can be costly to farmers because they reduce the amount of available cropland.

    Farm plots of low-growing plants are separated by rows of trees.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{n}\): Windbreaks are rows of trees and shrubs that reduce wind speed. They improve crop yields, reduce soil erosion, improve water-efficiency, protect livestock, and conserve energy. Image and caption (modified) from USDA/UFS (public domain).

    Organic Agriculture

    Organic agriculture is often incorporated into sustainable agriculture (figure \(\PageIndex{o}\)). To be certified as organic, farms must avoid using synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms (figure \(\PageIndex{p}\)). Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Pests may instead be controlled by natural enemies or naturally produced substances such as neem oil or diatomaceous earth. Some organic alternatives to synthetic pesticides have relatively low environmental impact (such as salt spray), but there are many naturally produced compounds that are still toxic to people or cause ecological harm when widely used. Interestingly, external application of Bt toxin is approved for organic farming, but use of genetically engineered Bt crops is not. The latter results in lower concentrations of Bt toxin in the environment because it is locally produced directly by the plants themselves. In summary, although many practices of organic agriculture benefit the environment and meet sustainability goals, some organic farms are not sustainable and some sustainable farms are not organic.

    A USDA employee and organic farmer with a shirt that says "Urban Sprout Farms" stands in front of a farm.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{o}\): United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Conservationist Shemekia Mosley (right) works with Nuri Icgoren (left) who operates Urban Sprout Farms, a biodynamic, certified organic urban farm Lakewood Heights, Georgia. Image and caption (modified) by Preston Keres/USDA (public domain).
    The USDA Organic logo (a green farm icon surrounded by a brown circle)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{p}\): The USDA certified organic label. Modified from image by nikoretro (CC-BY-SA).

    Consumer Choices that Support Sustainable Agriculture

    Even if you're not a farmer or lawmaker, you have the power to promote sustainable agriculture as a consumer. As discussed in Food Chains and Food Webs, it generally requires more land and more energy to produce meat compared to plant-based foods due to the inefficient transfer of energy from one trophic level to the next. For this reason, plant-based diets tend to be more sustainable, but this depends on the types of foods consumed and how they were produced.

    Local food is not only fresher, but it requires fewer food miles (figure \(\PageIndex{q}\)). In some ways, organic food causes less environmental degradation, but note that organic does not necessarily mean sustainable (see above). Because it limits machinery, synthetic pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers, it has a smaller carbon footprint (meaning it minimizes contribution to climate change). The Clean 15 is a list of produce that is low in pesticide residues. If you can't afford all organic foods, these are the best items to purchase non-organic. Examples include avocados, sweet corn, and pineapple. The Dirty Dozen lists produce that has the most pesticide residues. If you can only afford a few organic items, these are best to purchase organic. Examples include strawberries, spinach, and nectarines. Finally, some foods, such as beef, have higher carbon footprint and water footprint than others.

    Baskets of bell peppers, eggplants, squashes, potatoes, and zucchinis at a farmers' market
    Figure \(\PageIndex{q}\): Farmers' markets are one option for purchasing locally grown foods. Image by NatalieMaynor (CC-BY).

    The Future of the Sustainable Agriculture Concept

    Many in the agricultural community have adopted the sense of urgency and direction pointed to by the sustainable agriculture concept (figure \(\PageIndex{r}\)). Sustainability has become an integral component of many government, commercial, and non-profit agriculture research efforts, and it is beginning to be woven into agricultural policy. Increasing numbers of farmers and ranchers have embarked on their own paths to sustainability, incorporating integrated and innovative approaches into their own enterprises. 

    A framework for sustainable farming. Each strategy is labeled in an aerial view of a farm.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{r}\): Sustainable agriculture combines many approaches. (1) If chemical are used, they are applied only where needed. (2) Through the Conservation Reserve Program, the most ecologically important patches are left intact. (3) Terraces on slopes reduce soil erosion. (4) Crops are scouted for pests as part of monitoring, a component of integrated pest management. (5) Cover crops prevent erosion and enrich the soil during off-seasons. (6) Different types of crops are included are planted in close proximity (intercropping) or in different years (crop rotation). (7) Land is either not tilled at all or tilled minimally (conservation tillage). (8) Through precision nutrient management, soil is sampled at different locations, and fertilizer is only applied where needed. (9) Heavy equipment is used only as needed and in such a way that conserves fuel. (10) Irrigation is precisely timed to conserve water. (11) Water storage ponds help recharge groundwater. Image by the United Soybean Board (CC-BY).


    Modified by Melissa Ha from the following sources:


    This page titled 14.4: Sustainable Agriculture is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .