Growing up in South Eastern Virginia, my family always maintained a large, roughly 1-acre sized garden in our backyard. But as a youngster, there were few things my sister and I enjoyed less than spending summer afternoons sitting in our garage-turned basement “picking beans”. Our chore was to pull the tips off of string beans and snap them in half so they were ready for my Mom, who would boil them and pack them in the freezer. We equally disliked picking butter beans, which meant we had to squeeze their pods to pop them open and pick out the beans inside. It didn’t take long for my sister and I to develop a system. We would divide up the buckets of beans between us and then try to be as mechanical as possible, reaching in one bucket, picking the beans and then tossing them into a pot. The entire time, making sure to minimize any wasted movements that would prevent us from finishing the task as fast as possible.
It wasn’t until I moved off campus my third year in college, that I recall having my first conception of appreciation for those fresh grown vegetables I took for granted as a youth. In fact, it was quite a rude awakening, going to the grocery store with my roommate and realizing I had to buy my greens in a can. I never even knew that was an option!
At that moment, I became cognizant of the line in food culture. The line separating food we either grow ourselves or buy directly from local people who raise, grow or make it from the food that comes from farm factories, hundreds or thousands of petroleum-fueled miles away.
There was a time here in the US, prior to the mid-20th century, that agriculture was generally smaller in scale and used largely organic based methods. However, the surplus of chemical agents, ammonium nitrate (used in explosives) and various defoliants (i.e. – Agent Orange), created by chemical manufacturers between WWII and the conflict in Vietnam, became the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers used in the Green Revolution.
It was the era of the Green Revolution and development of hybrid corn which ushered a marriage between high-yielding crop varieties and management practices designed to meet these new varieties’ high demands for nutrients and pest protection. This resulted in a replacement of internal ecological controls with external inputs like chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, which in essence, divorced agriculture from ecology. While these developments resulted in an increase of yields, we now recognize that farmers’ dependence on these technologies have been problematic from an environmental and human health standpoint. Nitrogen (N) and toxic chemicals from pesticides and other external controls leak from these agricultural systems and can accumulate in soil, water, food and people.
With a world population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, coupled with economic growth fueling higher per capita consumption, the challenge for sustainable agriculture becomes clear. How do we meet the food and nutrition needs of a growing population, without sacrificing the environmental integrity of local landscapes and the global environment?
Presently, some 13 million ha of land is converted annually to agricultural use, mainly from forests and woodlands, which unfortunately weakens an important part of our ecosystem that helps to mitigate the effects of climate change. In turn, climate change adds pressure on agriculture systems and exacerbates degradation and desertification of increasingly over-exploited lands. So there is tremendous need for sustainable land management and productive agriculture that promotes biodiversity and environmental integrity rather than degrading it.
The FAO has determined in their report, The State of Food and Agriculture 2014, that family farms (similar to that of my youth) are key to ensuring environmental sustainability and global food security. With most family farms ranging from small to medium in size, they are well positioned to uphold global natural resource management and environmental sustainability because they can utilize their labour more intensively and better manage their resources. As a result, small farms tend to have higher agricultural crop yields per hectare than larger farms.
Additionally, the sustainable increase in production from family farms will not only help strengthen household level food security and nutrition, but also improve rural livelihoods and incomes. Subsequently, helping to fight both hunger and poverty. However, the single biggest challenge they face is climate change. Thus, supporting rural communities and farmers in vulnerable areas build resilience and adaptive capacity to climate change will help to ensure global food security and poverty reduction.
It’s now become clear that agriculture, climate change, land degradation, loss of biodiversity, soil fertility, hunger and poverty are all interlinked. Models of sustainable agriculture, like climate-smart agriculture and organic farming are necessary to help build resilience to climate change and increase agricultural productivity that takes care of and protects the natural environment. Agricultural systems must be managed as ecosystems that seek to not only build the vitality and strength of our communities, but also build life in the soil, avoiding the use of toxic chemicals, and seek to reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint. The future will depend on how effectively we understand and manage the socio-economic and ecological elements of agricultural ecosystems.