Background on Sustainable Agriculture

Today’s dominant form of agriculture relies on synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides, large amounts of water, major transportation systems and factory-style practices for raising livestock and crops.  Artificial hormones in milk, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, mad cow disease, and large-scale outbreaks of potentially deadly E. Coli are all associated with this industrial method of food production.

Sustainable agriculture involves food production methods that are healthy, do not harm the environment, respect workers, are humane to animals, provide fair wages to farmers, and support farming communities.

When we talk about sustainable agriculture, we mean the process of staying in sustained balance with nature: replacing and refreshing the natural resources —air, water and soil—consumed in the process of producing food. Unlike conventional industrial agriculture, sustainable agriculture does not dump pollution into the environment or treat animals inhumanely.

Characteristics of sustainable of agriculture include:

  • Conservation and preservation. What is taken out of the environment is put back in, so land and resources such as water, soil, and air are available to future generations. The waste from sustainable farming stays within the farm’s ecosystem and cannot cause buildup or pollution. In addition, sustainable agriculture seeks to minimize transportation costs and fossil fuel use, and is as such locally-based.
  • Biodiversity. Farms raise different types of plants and animals, which are rotated around the fields to enrich the soil and help prevent disease and pest outbreaks. Chemical pesticides are used minimally and only when necessary; many sustainable farms do not use any form of chemicals.
  • Animal welfare. Animals are treated humanely and with respect, and are well cared for. They are permitted to carry out their natural behaviors, such as grazing, rooting or pecking, and are fed a natural diet.
  • Economically viable. Farmers are paid a fair wage and are not dependent on subsidies from the government. Sustainable farmers help strengthen rural communities.
  • Socially just. Workers are treated fairly and paid competitive wages and benefits. They work in a safe environment and are offered proper living conditions and food.

Why you should eat sustainably?

  • Health. More and more health benefits are being found with sustainable meat. According to New York Times bestselling author Jo Robinson, grass-fed beef has two to six times more omega-3's than factory farmed, grain-fed meat. Omega-3 is a "good" fat that helps our cardiovascular system, our brain function and may help prevent cancer. The concept of sustainability also involves eating local, which means buying food from a farm as close to you as possible. This cuts down on the length of time between when the food is harvested or processed and when you eat it. After being harvested, food begins to lose nutrients, so the less time between the farm and your dinner plate, the more nutritious the food is for you.
  • Tastes Better. Most people claim that sustainably-raised food simply tastes better. For example, today's industrial-raised turkeys are injected with saline solution and vegetable oils to try to improve "mouth feel".
  • Animals. Sustainably-raised animals are treated humanely and are permitted to carry out natural behaviors such as rooting in the dirt and pecking the ground. Factory-farmed animals are crammed together in unsanitary conditions, where they suffer horribly and are often sick. Most never see sunlight and their feet never touch the ground.
  • Environment. On factory farms, thousands of animals excrete tons of waste every week. Millions of gallons of this untreated waste are often held in open-air lagoons and pollute the surrounding air, land, and water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, hog, chicken, and cattle waste polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states during the 1990's.
  • Workers. Workers on factory farms operate in very dangerous conditions. Some have been overcome by gases from manure lagoons and have died. They are often paid minimum wage and have no rights in their job. Employees on sustainable farms are paid a fair wage and are treated well.
  • Rural Communities. Sustainable farms are an integral part of the community, where money made on the farm is filtered back into local businesses. Studies have shown that factory farms can tear apart rural communities.
  • Fossil Fuels and Energy Use. Raising animals on factory farms takes a large amount of oil – to grow and harvest the crops that feed the animals, to fuel the ventilation systems and electricity in the barns in which they're held, to the transportation costs to move the animals the long distances they travel. This increases our dependence on foreign oil and foreign countries. Oil is also a non-renewable resource – meaning it cannot replenish itself. Some researchers have estimated that the planet will be out of oil within 50 years.

These are just a few reasons to eat sustainable food. Every dollar you spend sends a message to business -- the more you spend on sustainable food, the more sustainable food will be produced. What happens with our food is up to you – the choice is yours.

US Department of Agriculture
National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
Sustainable Table