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Towards a Sustainable Agriculture

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  • Irina Maia
    Towards a Sustainable Agriculture by Steve Diver Sustainable agriculture is an important element of the overall effort to make human activities compatible with
    Message 1 of 2 , May 27, 2004
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      Towards a Sustainable Agriculture
      by Steve Diver

      Sustainable agriculture is an important element of the overall
      effort to make human activities compatible with the demands of
      the earth's eco-system. Thus, an understanding of the different
      approaches to ecological agriculture is necessary if we want to
      utilise the planet's resources wisely.

      While sustainable agriculture is based on long-term goals and
      not a specific set of farming practices, it is usually
      accompanied by a reduction of purchased inputs in favor of
      managing on-farm resources. A good example is reliance on
      biologically-fixed nitrogen from legumes as versus manufactured
      nitrogen fertilizers. Low-input agriculture is one of several
      alternative farming systems whose methods are adaptable to
      sustainable agriculture.

      Low-input farming is based on a reduction--but not necessarily
      elimination--of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and
      herbicides. Farmers are adopting these practices primarily to
      reduce costs, but also because they want to minimize impact on
      the environment or because they perceive future pesticide
      regulations.

      In a search for information on how to farm with fewer chemicals,
      it is helpful to examine alternative farming systems in
      existence that largely exclude chemicals in favor of biological
      farming practices. Experiences of producers who've successfully
      practiced these methods are valuable to farmers considering a
      transition to low-input sustainable agriculture.

      Alternative Farming Systems
      There are four established approaches to alternative farming in
      the U.S. A common thread in all four schools is an emphasis on
      biological systems to supply fertility and pest control rather
      than chemical inputs.

      Organic farming is the most widely recognized alternative
      farming system. Modern organic farming evolved as an alternative
      to chemical agriculture in the 1940s, largely in response to the
      publications of J.I. Rodale in the U.S., Lady Eve Balfour in
      England, and Sir Albert Howard in India.

      In 1980, U.S.D.A. released a landmark report titled Report and
      Recommendations on Organic Farming [1] in which organic farming
      was defined as such:

      Organic farming is a production system which avoids or largely
      excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers,
      pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. To
      the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely upon
      crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green
      manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation,
      mineral-bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to
      maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients,
      and to control insects, weeds, and other pests.

      In the 70s and 80s, organic certification of farms emerged as a
      marketing tool to insure foods produced organically met
      specified standards of production. The Organic Foods Production
      Act, included in the 1990 Farm Bill, enabled USDA to develop a
      national program of universal standards, certification
      accreditation, and food labeling. Implementation, initially
      scheduled for October of 1993, was delayed due to lack of
      funding and complexity of issues and is anticipated to take
      effect in 1995.

      Biodynamic farming evolved in Europe in the 1920s following
      lectures on agriculture by the Austrian anthroposophist Rudolf
      Steiner. Biodynamic farming parallels organic farming in many
      ways but places greater emphasis on the integration of animals
      to create a closed nutrient cycle, effect of crop planting dates
      in relation to the calendar, and awareness of spiritual forces
      in nature. A unique feature of this system is the use of eight
      specific preparations derived from cow manure, silica, and
      herbal extracts to treat compost piles, soils, and crops.

      Demeter (tm) is a certification program for food and feed
      produced by strictly biodynamic farming methods. The Community
      Supported Agriculture (CSA) marketing programs, gathering
      popularity as an innovative method of subscription farming, were
      largely introduced into the U.S. by the biodynamic movement. An
      article on soil quality and financial performance of biodynamic
      and conventional farms in New Zealand in the April 16, 1993
      issue of Science. In a comparison of 16 adjacent farms, the
      biodynamic farms exhibited superior soil physical, biological,
      and chemical properties and were just as financially viable as
      their counterparts. [2]

      "Biological" farming has become synonymous with farmers using
      the Reams fertility system as the basis for crop production. Eco-
      agriculture is the term used to describe this system by the
      monthly Acres, U.S.A. The Reams system is based on the LaMotte-
      Morgan soil test and the use of rock phosphate, calcium
      carbonate, and compost to achieve nutrient ratios of 7:1 calcium
      to magnesium, 2:1 phosphorus to potassium, and so
      on. "Biological" farming allows the use of selected chemical
      fertilizers (avoiding disruptive materials such as anhydrous
      ammonia and potassium chloride) and adopts low-input approaches
      to use of herbicides and insecticides.

      Diagnostic instruments to monitor plant and soil conditions are
      frequently used in "Biological" farming; these include
      refractometers to monitor sugar content (Brix) in plant tissue
      sap; electrical conductivity meters to monitor ERGS (or energy
      released per gram of soil); ORPS meters (or oxygen reduction
      potential of soil); and radionics. Based on data gathered,
      foliar sprays containing biostimulants and soluble nutrients are
      applied. The Pandol Brothers, a large commercial fruit and
      vegetable operation in California, reduced their annual
      pesticide bill from $500,000 to $50,000 per year after adopting
      a "Biological" fertility program.

      Nature Farming was developed in Japan in the 1930s by Mokichi
      Okada, who later formed the Mokichi Okada Association (MOA).
      Nature Farming parallels organic farming in many ways but
      includes special emphasis on soil health through composts rather
      than organic fertilizers, when possible. Kyusei Nature Farming,
      a branch group, emphasizes use of microbial preparations in
      addition to traditional Nature Farming. Nature Farming is most
      active in the Pacific rim, including California and Hawaii.

      Since the late 1980s, Nature Farming has gained wider
      recognition in the United States through the coordinated efforts
      of MOA and the Rodale Institute in the formation of the World
      Sustainable Agriculture Association (WSAA). The WSAA and MOA
      sponsor annual conferences on Nature Farming and sustainable
      agriculture. Kyusei Nature Farming conducts on-farm research in
      California.

      In addition to these methods-based approaches to sustainable
      farming, regenerative agriculture and permaculture are widely
      recognized in the U.S. and abroad. However, these latter
      systems, like sustainable agriculture, are more conceptually
      oriented than methods-based.

      Regenerative agriculture became the preferred term of the
      Rodale Institute in the late 1970s and 80s under the direction
      of Robert Rodale. Regenerative agriculture builds on nature's
      own inherent capacity to cope with pests, enhance soil
      fertility, and increase productivity. It implies a continuing
      ability to re- create the resources that the system requires. In
      practice, regenerative agriculture uses low-input and organic
      farming systems as a framework to achieve these goals.

      Permaculture is a contraction of "permanent agriculture" and
      was coined by Bill Mollison, an Australian forest ecologist, in
      1978. Permaculture is concerned with designing ecological human
      habitats and food production systems, and follows specific
      guidelines and principles in the design of these systems. To the
      extent that permaculture is not a production system, per se, but
      rather a land use planning philosophy, it is not limited to a
      specific method of production. Thus, practically any site-
      specific ecological farming system is amenable to permaculture.

      A common thread among all six schools is an opposing world view
      to the industrial model of agriculture. These competing
      paradigms were summarized in "Conventional Versus Alternative
      Agriculture: The Paradigmatic Roots of the Debate" [3] as:

      centralization vs. decentralization

      dependence vs. independence

      competition vs. community

      dominance of nature vs. harmony with nature

      specialization vs. diversity

      exploitation vs. restraint

      These objectives obviously have more to do with societal and
      economic responses to modern industrial agriculture than they do
      with farming practice A or farming practice B. Nevertheless,
      they underscore the sometimes contentious debate between
      sustainable farming advocates and supporters of high-input
      conventional agriculture.

      Evolution of Sustainable Agriculture
      In the 1960s and 70s, a growing environmental agriculture
      movement evolved in response to increasing soil erosion,
      pesticide use, and groundwater contamination. Simultaneously,
      economic conditions for farmers were becoming more stressful and
      the number of family farms declined.

      In 1980 Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Salina, KS, began
      using the term "sustainable agriculture" to describe an
      alternative system of agriculture based upon resource
      conservation and quality of rural life. Through the lobbying
      efforts of several nonprofit farming organizations, Congress
      passed legislation in the 1985 Farm Bill that mandated
      implementation of a low-input sustainable agriculture program by
      the Department of Agriculture.

      In 1988 U.S.D.A. initiated the Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture
      research and education program, or LISA. In 1991 the name of
      this program was changed to the Sustainable Agriculture Research
      and Education Program, or SARE. Funds made available through the
      LISA/SARE programs have resulted in significant additions to
      landgrant research and extension programs in the last five
      years.

      While sustainable agriculture has become the umbrella under
      which many of the above-mentioned alternative farming systems
      fall, it is important to note that sustainable agriculture is
      really a long-term goal, not a specific set of farming
      practices. In Sustainable Agriculture in Temperate Zones [4]
      sustainable agriculture was defined as such:

      Sustainable Agriculture is a philosophy based on human goals and
      on understanding the long-term impact of our activities on the
      environment and on other species. Use of this philosophy guides
      our application of prior experience and the latest scientific
      advances to create integrated, resource-conserving, equitable
      farming systems. These systems reduce environmental degradation,
      maintain agricultural productivity, promote economic viability
      in both the short and long term and maintain stable rural
      communities and quality of life.

      Three indicators that appear most frequently in a definition of
      sustainable agriculture are:

      Environmentally sound

      Economically viable

      Socially acceptable

      In this context, sustainable agriculture embraces all
      agricultural systems striving to meet these criteria. Many
      aspects of modern conventional agriculture are included in
      sustainable agriculture, just as are many aspects of alternative
      farming systems.

      One aspect of modern agriculture receiving a lot of attention in
      the sustainable agriculture discussion is the use of chemical
      inputs to supply fertility and pest control. While agriculture
      chemicals will continue to play an important role in American
      agriculture, many farmers are looking at alternatives due to
      environmental, economical, or regulatory reasons. In a
      transition to farming systems more reliant on biological methods
      of production, low-input farming serves as an intermediary step.

      Low-Input Agriculture
      The term low-input agriculture has been defined as a production
      activity that uses synthetic fertilizers or pesticides below
      rates commonly recommended by the Extension Service. It does not
      mean elimination of these materials. Yields are maintained
      through greater emphasis on cultural practices, IPM, and
      utilization of on-farm resources and management.

      Although the term "low-input farming" has often been used to
      describe any system of alternative agriculture, it can be seen
      that it is distinctly different from organic farming, etc.
      Nevertheless, any system that reduces purchased chemical inputs
      can be called low-input farming.

      As research funded through U.S.D.A.'s LISA/SARE program has
      emerged, it is apparent that many Extension programs are now
      offering low-input practices as a regular option for growers.
      Examples of low-input agriculture Extension Service programs in
      the United States:

      University of Arkansas reduced herbicide program for soybeans

      University of Massachusetts low-spray apple orchard program

      Pennsylvania State University living mulches for vegetables
      program

      In Oklahoma, speakers have reported at Horticulture Industries
      Show meetings that: (1) poultry litter can replace nitrogen
      fertilizers in the production of watermelons; (2) legume cover
      crops can supply the total nitrogen requirements of pecan trees;
      and, (3) two timely applications of a synthetic insecticide can
      produce a full crop of worm-free apples.

      In Arkansas, speakers have reported at the Arkansas Society for
      Horticultural Science meetings that: (1) compost amended potting
      mixes produce superior vegetable transplants than traditional
      soilless mixes; (2) no-till vegetable systems are feasible using
      reduced herbicide rates to kill cover crops; and, (3)
      subterranean clover living mulches supply nitrogen and weed
      control in peach orchards.

      Integrated pest management is probably the oldest and most
      widely recognized Extension Service program devoted to low-input
      agriculture. However, only recently have the "non-chemical"
      approaches--such as cultural, mechanical, and biological--within
      the IPM framework been emphasized over the chemical component.
      Some programs, in fact, are now termed "biologically-intensive
      IPM."

      In Oklahoma, low-input sustainable agriculture is being
      practiced on many farms and ranches. Extension efforts are
      needed to photograph and document these practices for wider
      distribution. Research efforts are needed to validate practices
      through on-farm research for wider application.

      Finally, in the adoption of sustainable farming practices that
      depend on a higher degree of management of biological resources,
      it is helpful to remember one or two ideas about priorities in
      farming:

      "Any system that allows people to get started, however imperfect
      it might be, is the right system for that situation."

      That is to say that during these rough times in U.S.
      agriculture, it is far more important to help young people get
      into farming, and keep established farmers financially secure,
      than it is to worry about eliminating tools--including
      fertilizers and pesticides--that support farming. In other
      words, "get the engine running first, then adjust the
      carburetor."

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      References
      USDA. 1980. Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. U.S.
      Dept. of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. 94 p.

      Reaganold, J.P., et al. 1993. Soil quality and financial
      performance of biodynamic and conventional farms in New Zealand.
      Science. April 16. p. 344-349.

      Beus, C.E., and R.E. Dunlap. 1990. Conventional versus
      alternative agriculture: the paradigmatic roots of the debate.
      Rural Sociology. 55(4): 590-616.

      Francis, C.A., C.B. Flora, and L.D. King. 1990. Sustainable
      Agriculture in Temperate Zones. John Wiley & Sons, New York. 487
      p.



      Alternative Farming Organizations
      Organic Farming
      Rodale Institute Research Center
      611 Siegfriedale Rd.
      Kutztown, PA 19530
      (610) 683-6383

      Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA)-International
      3185 Township Rd. 179
      Bellefontane, OH 43311
      (513) 592-4983

      Biodynamic Farming
      Biodynamic Farming & Gardening Assn.
      P.O. Box 550
      Kimberton, PA 19442
      (215) 935-7797

      Josephine Porter Institute of Applied Biodynamics
      P.O. Box 133
      Woolwine, VA 24185
      (703) 930-2463


      Michael Fields Agricultural Institute
      West 2493 County Rd. ES
      East Troy, WI 53120
      (414) 642-3303

      Biological Farming
      Acres, U.S.A. Book Store
      2617-C Edenborn Ave
      Metairie, LA 70002
      (504) 889-2100

      Nature Farming
      Mokichi Okada Association
      c/o Pacific Cultural Center
      1835 Vancouver Drive
      Honolulu, HI 96822
      (808) 595-6344
      (808) 595-8014 Fax

      Nature Farming Research & Development Center

      6495 Santa Rosa Rd.
      Lompac, CA 93436
      (805) 737-1536
      (805) 736-9599 Fax



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      ---------------


      Steve Diver is a farm advisor at a sustainable farming
      information center in the U.S. He can be contacted at
      steved@....

      This article was published in New Renaissance magazine Vol.6,
      No.2


      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • Ingrid Bauer/Jean-Claude Catry
      interesting overview but no mention of natural way of farming or even the notill conventional farming method .the focus is mostly on avoiding chemicals in
      Message 2 of 2 , May 28, 2004
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        interesting overview but no mention of natural way of farming or even the
        notill conventional farming method .the focus is mostly on avoiding
        chemicals in fertiliser and pesticides while soils get depleted thru
        tilling in the first place necessiting more fertilisers creating more need
        for pesticides .

        jean-claude
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