What is Sustainable Agriculture?

The term Sustainable Agriculture has been a phrase that has floated around the agricultural industry for some time but in more recent years it has found itself become quite a buzzword for agribusinesses that wish to have a long and fruitful future.

Through the lens of agribusiness, the goal of sustainable agriculture is to meet society’s food needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

A growing movement has emerged during the past two decades to question the role of the agricultural establishment in promoting practices that contribute towards these social problems of sustainability and resource waste. Today this movement for sustainable agriculture is garnering increasing support and acceptance within mainstream agriculture. Not only does sustainable agriculture address many environmental and social concerns, but it offers innovative and economically viable opportunities for growers, labourers, consumers, policymakers and many others in the entire food system.

Practitioners of sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives into their work:

  • A Healthy Environment
  • Economic Profitability
  • Social and Economic Equity

Every person involved in the food system—growers, food processors, distributors, retailers, consumers, and waste managers—can play a role in ensuring a sustainable agricultural system.

There are many practices commonly used by people working in sustainable agriculture and sustainable food systems. Growers may use methods to promote soil health, minimise water use, and lower pollution levels on the farm. Consumers and retailers concerned with sustainability can look for “values-based” foods that are grown using methods promoting farmworker wellbeing, that are environmentally friendly, or that strengthen the local economy. And researchers in sustainable agriculture often cross disciplinary lines with their work: combining biology, economics, engineering, chemistry, community development, and many others. However, sustainable agriculture is more than a collection of practices.

Addressing Food Insecurity

Food insecurity in western society is associated with a decline in household food supplies, less frequent fruit and vegetable consumption, higher levels of unemployment, increased participation in food assistance programs, and increased levels of eating disorders. Food insecurity can be viewed as a continuum with varying degrees of severity dependent on the level of hunger experienced within the household. Food insecure without hunger is the least severe and constitutes families that worry about running out of food, and that will adjust purchasing behaviour or consumption to affect the quality of the food supply. Moderate levels of food insecurity can be seen in families where parents or adults may experience hunger, while kids maintain nutritionally adequate diets. At the most severe level, all members of a household experience hunger for extended periods of time.

Sustainable Postharvest Management Practices

Balancing food preservation and safety requirements with sustainability goals is an increasingly important objective for food producers, processors, distributors, and retailers. In each stage in a product’s handling after harvest – cleaning, packaging, transportation, storage, preparation and retail – exists the potential for contamination or spoilage, both leading to postharvest losses and potential food safety issues. Many methods exist to mitigate losses and improve food safety, such as cold storage, refrigerated transport, and handling protocols to reduce transmission of pathogens. Sustainable postharvest management practices pursue the same goals of minimising losses and contamination in ways that increase efficiency and limit the use of energy and nonrenewable resources.

Each year an estimated 1 in 6 people in the United States is expected to suffer from foodborne illness. While many of these incidents go untreated and undiagnosed, thousands of individuals will die due to food poisoning and related complications. The most common causes of food related illnesses are bacteria, viruses, and parasites, often from organisms such as E. Coli, Salmonella, and Noroviruses.  Fresh produce is the most common source of foodborne illness, accounting for up to half of all foodborne illnesses. Meat and poultry generally account for fewer total illnesses, but cause a greater proportion of lasting problems or death.  In addition to bacteria, viruses, and parasites, foodborne illnesses may be caused by other contaminants such as pesticide residues, metals, or natural toxins. The possibility for food to become contaminated by pathogens can occur at any point across the food production and distribution chain.

Technological Innovation in Agriculture

Blockchain

Blockchain’s capability of tracking ownership records and tamper-resistance can be used to solve urgent issues such as food fraud, safety recalls, supply chain inefficiency and food traceability in the current food system. Blockchain’s unique decentralised structure ensures verified products and practices to create a market for premium products with transparency.

Food traceability has been at the centre of recent food safety discussions, particularly with new advancements in blockchain applications. Due to the nature of perishable food, the food industry at whole is extremely vulnerable to making mistakes that would ultimately affect human lives. When foodborne diseases threaten public health, the first step to root-cause analysis is to track down the source of contamination and there is no tolerance for uncertainty.

Consequently, traceability is critical for the food supply chain. The current communication framework within the food ecosystem makes traceability a time-consuming task since some involved parties are still tracking information on paper. The structure of blockchain ensures that each player along the food value chain would generate and securely share data points to create an accountable and traceable system. Vast data points with labels that clarify ownership can be recorded promptly without any alteration. As a result, the record of a food item’s journey, from farm to table, is available to monitor in real-time.

The use cases of blockchain in food go beyond ensuring food safety. It also adds value to the current market by establishing a ledger in the network and balancing market pricing. The traditional price mechanism for buying and selling relies on judgments of the involved players, rather than the information provided by the entire value chain. Giving access to data would create a holistic picture of the supply and demand. The blockchain application for trades might revolutionise traditional commodity trading and hedging as well. Blockchain enables verified transactions to be securely shared with every player in the food supply chain, creating a marketplace with immense transparency.

Artificial Intelligence

The rise of digital agriculture and its related technologies has opened a wealth of new data opportunities. Remote sensors, satellites, and UAVs can gather information 24 hours per day over an entire field. These can monitor plant health, soil condition, temperature, humidity, etc. The amount of data these sensors can generate is overwhelming, and the significance of the numbers is hidden in the avalanche of that data.

The idea is to allow farmers to gain a better understanding of the situation on the ground through advanced technology (such as remote sensing) that can tell them more about their situation than they can see with the naked eye. And not just more accurately but also more quickly than seeing it walking or driving through the fields.

Remote sensors enable algorithms to interpret a field’s environment as statistical data that can be understood and useful to farmers for decision-making. Algorithms process the data, adapting and learning based on the data received. The more inputs and statistical information collected, the better the algorithm will be at predicting a range of outcomes. And the aim is that farmers can use this artificial intelligence to achieve their goal of a better harvest through making better decisions in the field.

Environmental Sensors operate within the Storage stage of the postharvest cycle and are continuously capturing ethylene, temperature, humidity, CO2 & O2 samples from the atmosphere and providing the most accurate ripeness readings in the industry. This data creates conditioning reports for Cool Store operators to help forecast optimal delivery times, maximising outgoings and minimising food wastage.

With this unique patented technology, storage facilities within the cold chain system are capable of monitoring and notifying users of any irregularities within storage spaces as well as optimise the shelf-life of produce in retail as it can accurately forecast when the produce should be packed, distributed and then made available to customers; resulting in the purchase of peak condition produce.

Water Quality Management & Use Efficiency

Water is the principal resource that has helped agriculture and society to prosper, and it has been a major limiting factor when mismanaged.

The most important issues related to water quality involve salinisation and contamination of ground and surface waters by pesticides, nitrates and selenium. Salinity has become a problem wherever water of even relatively low salt content is used on shallow soils in arid regions and/or where the water table is near the root zone of crops. Tile drainage can remove the water and salts, but the disposal of the salts and other contaminants may negatively affect the environment depending upon where they are deposited. Temporary solutions include the use of salt-tolerant crops, low-volume irrigation, and various management techniques to minimise the effects of salts on crops. In the long-term, some farmland may need to be removed from production or converted to other uses. Other uses include conversion of row crop land to production of drought-tolerant forages, the restoration of wildlife habitat or the use of agroforestry to minimise the impacts of salinity and high water tables. Pesticide and nitrate contamination of water can be reduced using many of the practices discussed later in the Plant Production Practices and Animal Production Practices sections.

These are just a few key areas within a multitude of others that all seek to contribute towards Sustainable Agriculture being an industry-wide accepted mentality and practice within all post harvest operations.

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