How Sustainable is Our Agricultural Industry?

The city and the countryside are considered as opposing landscapes by many, associating one with urban pollution and the other with forests and abundant wildlife. However, much of the country greenery consists of pastures and plains covering rolling hills and vast expanses of flat land. Can this landscape be thought of as nature? The rural terrain has been dominated by the industrialized and commercialized practice of intensive agriculture (i.e. conventional farming). Unfortunately, this method of farming is environmentally unsustainable in the long-run, given that it degrades soil, pollutes water, and produces greenhouse gases. Considering these impacts, there should be more effort to derive ways of integrating the practice of agriculture with the natural environment.

Over the last century, the agricultural sector began using fossil fuel-based fertilizers instead of reusing biomass, inserting larger concentrations of nitrogen-rich compounds like ammonium into the soil to increase crop output. In the case of intensive agriculture, soil acidification occurs when such inputs are used excessively on the same plot of land without fallowing (i.e. not leaving the soil untouched for a certain amount of years to allow for regeneration). Acidification disrupts the natural pH of the soil and results in loss of plant growth productivity. As a result, the soil has a saturation point, where the addition of more fertilizer decreases marginal yield and causes food shortages.

Various chemicals in the form of pesticides often end up seeping into groundwater and flowing into nearby watersheds. This contamination by irrigation runoff can have serious effects on the biodiversity and wellbeing of aquatic species, affecting the health of humans and wildlife indirectly through their consumption. Another issue is the formation of algal blooms created by the surplus of nitrogen that ends up in water resources from fertilizers. An algal bloom appears as a thick and slimy scum of green plant growth, resting on the surface of a body of water and causing a process called eutrophication. This refers to the reduction in oxygen that occurs when algae undergoes bacterial decomposition, suffocating the aquatic life beneath it. Toxins can also be released that lead to the illness and death of many birds and fish, affecting the food chain systems of other species.

In addition, intensive agriculture affects air quality through the emission of greenhouse gases. The manure of livestock in mass meat production produces nitrous oxide and methane, which are gases that prevent heat from escaping the earth by capturing it in the atmosphere. This effect is known as global warming, which is a major force of human-induced climate change. Most crops across Canada are dedicated for livestock feeding alone, contributing to biomass production at staggeringly high rates. For example, 84% of crops throughout the province of Québec were grown solely for animal feed in 2011, which is a percentage that keeps increasing across the country.

Farmland in south-west Québec

Given that the human population is estimated to reach approximately 9 billion by 2050, intensive agriculture is currently seen as the only means of meeting such a growing need for subsistence as quickly as possible. Economically speaking, farming in this manner also allows for the greatest volume of produce at the lowest consumer price. However, supply often far outweighs consumer demand, resulting in significant overproduction and food waste that questions the necessity for intensive practices. Instead of heavily relying on conventional agriculture, the farming industry can try to adopt alternative practices. According to the UN, “Small scale farmers in Africa have used agroecology to more than double [conventional agriculture] crop yields within 3 to 10 years of implementation” (Conrad, 2013). Agroecology refers to treating agricultural areas as natural ecosystems to increase mindfulness of environmental impacts, farming through biological processes such as the use of natural insect pathogens instead of chemical pesticides to ward off pests.

Environmental degradation is a problem that intensive agriculture exacerbates significantly; thus, alternative approaches are required to secure the wellbeing of both humanity and the planet. Some characteristics of sustainable farming include using renewable sources of energy, rotating and diversifying crops through poly-cropping, removing weeds manually, incorporating natural insect repellent plants like citrosa, and managing pastoral grazing. Ultimately, there must be more effort to make agriculture a sustainable industry.


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