History teaches that the decline of many ancient civilizations was in part due to non-renewable farming methods. Many modern farming methods appear to be similarly depleting our natural resources.
At the same time, the world’s population is growing at an unprecedented pace. This raises serious questions about whether our present agricultural systems will be able to support this increase.
Sustainable agriculture attempts to choose agricultural practices according to their effects on society and the environment. Its goal is to secure for farmers the best crop yields and economic returns while considering the present and future needs of society and the health of the environment. Economic profitability in the present is weighed against environmentally conservative farming methods of the future.
Sustainable agricultural practices stem from the concept of biodynamics, which recognizes that all things in nature are interrelated. The methods that farmers employ on their individual fields eventually affect much larger local ecosystems and, over time, can have a global effect.
Among the problems sustainable agriculture seeks to address are topsoil depletion, water and energy conservation, groundwater contamination, overuse of chemical pesticides and herbicides, escalating production costs and disintegrating economic and social conditions in rural farming communities.
One sustainable agriculture success story is a pest control practice known as integrated pest management. IPM uses a variety of strategies to decrease the use of chemical pesticides. Farmers who use IPM choose strong plant varieties that are resistant to insect damage. They also use predatory insects that feed on pests but do not harm crop plants. By carefully monitoring weather patterns, soil nutrition and pest populations, farmers can predict when pest outbreaks will occur, and use chemical pesticides only as a last resort. IPM is catching on because it works and because it is often cheaper than using expensive chemicals.
In keeping with the tenets of sustainable agriculture, many farmers endeavor to grow crops and raise livestock organically. Until recently, “organically grown” was generally understood to mean grown without synthetic pesticides and herbicides. The trouble was that there were no federal regulations pertaining to organic growing practices, making it difficult for consumers to be sure of exactly what they were buying.
In October of 2002, the United States Department of Agriculture established a set of national standards that food labeled “organic” must meet. These standards address crops, animal products such as meat, milk and eggs, as well as packaged foods. Before any food or product can be labeled “organic” a USDA certifier must inspect the farm or company to ensure that all rules are being followed. Those in violation of the regulations may be fined up to $10,000.
In addition to using renewable resources and conserving soil and water, organic foods are produced without the use of conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. Prohibited and acceptable materials are outlined in a national list; these materials were evaluated under several criteria, including their effects on human health and farm ecosystems, their toxicity and their compatibility with sustainable agriculture. Contrary to the common assumption that organically grown foods are produced only with natural materials, the national list includes synthetic materials.
Organic crops must be grown on land that has been free of prohibited substances for at least three years. During the time that farmland is being changed from conventional to organic, it is called “transitional.” Tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotation and cover crops are used to manage soil fertility. Crop nutrients, pests, weeds and diseases are managed through physical, mechanical and biological controls rather than pesticides and herbicides whenever possible.
Organic livestock is fed 100 percent organic agricultural feed (vitamin and mineral supplements are acceptable). They must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants (such as cattle) must have access to pasturelands. Animals may not be given hormones—to enhance or promote growth—or antibiotics.
The USDA has also established standards for labeling organic foods, including processed foods and packaged goods containing organic ingredients. Foods labeled “100 percent organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients. “Organic” foods must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients, and the remaining ingredients must either be on the national list or be unavailable commercially in organic form. These foods must also be produced using methods that meet USDA standards; if they do, the USDA seal certifying that standards were met may appear on the package and in advertisements.
Foods that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients.” Up to three organic ingredients or foods may be listed on the label, but the USDA seal cannot appear on the package.
Due to higher production costs, organic foods may be more expensive than those grown conventionally. However, buying them may have other benefits. Although there is no scientific evidence that organic foods have a better nutrition profile, many people prefer them for their flavor and quality or because they reduce the quantity of pesticides and herbicides on their foods or in the soil or in their water.
At one time, cattle and sheep grazed in pastures and chickens meandered from coop to barnyard. Modern techniques in animal husbandry, however, make use of practices that are more concerned with high production and yield, rather than flavor, safety and humane treatment of animals.
Today, chickens and turkeys are carefully bred to produce a greater percentage of breast meat to meet consumer demand. Their diets include antibiotics, growth enhancers and ingredients intended to ward off the numerous diseases to which poultry are prone, as well as to promote rapid weight gain.
Cattle, pigs, chickens and other animals may be kept in pens or feedlots that inhibit mobility. They may be fed doses of antibiotics, growth enhancers, steroids and substances they are unable to digest, as well as ingredients intended to ward off disease. Although there is no documented evidence that the residues from steroids and antibiotics in the animals’ flesh cause illness in humans, there is concern about that potential. Objections to the crowded conditions in which the animals live are also being raised.
As a result, free-range birds have become popular. The term free-range conjures up imagines of birds roaming free, but this is often far from reality. The only requirement the USDA has for birds or livestock labeled free-range is that they not be kept in pens. There are no requirements pertaining to the size of the area they’re kept in or the type of feed.
Farmers and ranchers who spend the money to give animals space also spend on good feed and don’t use hormones or steroids to speed growth. Meat from these animals often costs more. Some say the improved nutritional value, flavor and texture are worth the cost. Free-range birds appear to be lower in fat than confined birds. Whether allowing the birds and livestock access to the outdoors results in better flavor, there is no definitive answer.
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