Sustainability and the Agriculture Industry – A Lot to Chew On

Sustainability and the Agriculture Industry

If you’re a human who eats but you don’t raise your own crops and livestock, you are affected by the agriculture industry’s self-inflicted sustainability problem. We explain.

Agriculture is arguably the most important business activity in the world. Roughly 12,000 years ago humans switched from being hunter/gatherers to living in agrarian societies with reliable food supplies. That changed everything. Displaying a firm grasp on the obvious here, we all need food, and most of us do not grow our own crops or raise livestock (even a few chickens) to meet that need. Even if we could, it would take too much time away from the work we do that contributes to GDP and helps to provide others with important goods and services. We owe a lot to the agriculture industry that allows us to put food on our tables.

Unfortunately, a number of forces are threatening and even destroying the natural resources the agricultural industry needs, and the agriculture industry’s activities have a significant, negative impact on the environment. This gets at the concept of double materiality, which argues in favor of looking both at how an industry or company affects the environment and society, and how environmental and societal issues affect an industry or company.

In this article, we explore sustainability in agriculture from both sides. It might seem logical to separately address the forces that threaten agricultural sustainability versus the damage the agricultural industry causes to the environment, but it turns out they are deeply intertwined.

Threats to agricultural sustainability – two sides of the same coin

While we acknowledge that many people suffer from inadequate nutrition and there is work left to do in this area, the agriculture industry does a remarkable job of meeting the world’s need for food, with increasing efficiency. According to the World Bank, the industry now feeds more people per agricultural worker than ever before. But environmental threats mean we may not be able to count on having the amount and types of food we are accustomed to seeing. 

And here’s the irony: guess which industry poses perhaps the biggest challenge to sustainability for agriculture around the world? If you said “the agriculture industry itself,” you’re correct. Like a snake swallowing its own tail, agricultural activities have substantial, negative effects on the environment in ways that threaten the agriculture industry. Think about that for a minute. Even environmental “villains” such as oil and gas producers and chemical manufacturers do not directly conflict with their own ability to do what they do (producing chemicals does not hurt a chemical company’s ability to make more chemicals). But agriculture is different. Its own activities directly cause soil erosion, which depletes arable land needed for crops and raising livestock. Clearing more land cuts down trees, releasing CO2, which worsens climate change, contributing to devastating droughts and fires that reduce crop yields and force livestock owners to cull their herds. Pesticides that kill insects also kill bees and other pollinators that crops need. Run-off from fertilizer leads to algae blooms that kill aquatic life, which hurts commercial fishing in coastal areas (the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that this has caused up to $2.4 billion in damages to fisheries and marine habitat every year since 1980). We could go on, but you get the picture:

Before you bite into that burger…

Around the world, people are making changes in their daily lives to help fight climate change and otherwise protect the environment. A growing number of us are driving electric vehicles. We are installing solar panels on our rooftops. We are using metal thermoses instead of single-use plastic bottles. But are we willing to make any changes in the way we eat? 

Consider this: Raising livestock for human consumption generates nearly 15 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissionsmore than all emissions from transportation combined. Livestock uses nearly 70 percent of agricultural land, and is a major contributor to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution. It takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.

We are not suggesting a ban on cattle ranches and sheep farms—although sheep are a huge source of methane gas, which is more than 25 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of trapping heat in the atmosphere. While avoiding meat entirely can be a good choice for some people, it is not acceptable to everyone. But there are many numbers between zero and 100! If every meat-eater reduced consumption of steaks, burgers, and lamb chops by just 20 percent, maybe eating red meat once every six days instead of every five, or even made an effort to purchase more sustainably produced meat products, it could measurably reduce agriculture’s negative environmental impacts.

Agriculture’s impact on human health

Unfortunately, the serious problems discussed above are not the full extent of the downside of agriculture. Thus far we have focused solely on the direct harm that agricultural activities cause to the environment. Here we list some of the negative effects on human health from common practices the industry uses to maximize crop yields and livestock production:

  • Farmworkers and farm owners suffer from health problems caused by exposure to pesticides;
  • Routine antibiotic use in animal agriculture contributes to antibiotic resistance in humans;
  • Agricultural contaminants, including pesticides and fertilizer (nitrates, and phosphorus) impact ground and surface water quality for people in communities miles away from the source of the contamination;
  • The use of synthetic fertilizers leads to the release of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 265 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide in groundwater has been identified as a possible carcinogen.

This is all depressing and discouraging. Is there a way forward that would allow us to eat the foods we like in a sustainable way, protecting the agricultural industry, the planet, and our own health?  

What does sustainable agriculture look like?

Let’s assume the agriculture industry wants to be more sustainable (it wants to stop swallowing its own tail). What does that mean, in practical terms? According to the Union of Concerned Scientists “sustainable agriculture uses state-of-the-art, science-based practices that maximize productivity and profit while minimizing environmental damage.” 

Sustainability in agriculture means being good stewards of the natural systems and resources the industry uses. This applies to small farms, industrial-sized operations, and everything in between. Good stewardship does not have to be high tech or expensive, so agriculture in emerging market countries can become more sustainable along with wealthier nations, and the return on investment can be quite high, financially, environmentally, and for society overall.

The Union of Concerned Scientists suggests focusing on the following:

  • Building healthy soil and preventing erosion. Can be encouraged by rotating crops and planting a variety of crops (which can also improve pest control), planting cover crops and perennials (reducing the need for fertilizers and herbicides), reducing or eliminating tillage, and integrating livestock and crops, among other things.
  • Managing water wisely. More effective irrigation is important here—farmers in California have been actively installing micro-drip irrigation in place of less efficient systems. Planting cover crops also help.
  • Storing carbon on farms. Building healthy soil requires adding carbon, and fighting climate change requires reducing carbon in the atmosphere. The idea here is to build up carbon in soil by capturing carbon from the atmosphere via improved soil management. Win-win.
  • Promoting biodiversity. This increases an ecosystem’s resilience to shocks and stresses, including climate change, supports pollination by different species, protect against predator species, and promote water filtration.

What about organic farming? Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the concept, even if we don’t know the technical details of what it means. Organic farming has been around since at least the 1970s in the U.S., but many still associate it with hippies and expensive fruits and vegetables that only people with high incomes can afford. Some question whether it is really better, or just marketing hype. We consulted many sources, and they all agree. Organic farms tend to have more fertile soil, use less energy, and sequester more carbon. They also foster more biodiversity compared to conventional farming. 

Pursuing sustainable agriculture isn’t about being a “health nut” – it’s about feeding people while protecting and replenishing the resources required to do so. The agriculture industry is its own worst enemy when it comes to damaging the very resources it needs to sustain itself. That means it has the power to turn things around. OWL’s data can help you to learn more about sustainability risks and steps being taken by various agriculture business to address them. Contact us to learn more.