Agriculture is one of the most important human activities. It is also one of the most land intensive. In fact, we use approximately 40 percent of the world’s terrestrial surface area for the production of food. To put this number in perspective, consider the fact that the land we use to grow crops is approximately equal to the size of South America. The amount of land we use to raise livestock is even larger.
Unfortunately, agriculture, at least the way we currently practice it, is destroying our planet. Fertilizers are running off into watersheds and creating oxygen-hungry algae blooms. Exposed topsoil is flying away in the wind, and taking vital nutrients with it. Weeds and pests are developing resistance to over-used herbicides and insecticides. Even more worrisome is the fact that small-scale farmers in developing nations are cutting down acres and acres of forest every minute of the day to make way for farmland.
The good news is that agriculture doesn’t need to be so destructive. In some instances, we can even use it to regenerate degraded land. Below, you’ll find a list of techniques, strategies, and technologies that farmers can use to create food without enacting such a heavy toll on our planet.
Plants need water to survive. In some areas, they get all the water they need from rainfall. However, this is not always the case, particularly in the dryer regions of the world. In such regions, farmers can use irrigation to keep their soil sufficiently moistened.
All in all, farmers irrigate around 18 percent of the world’s cropland.
The techniques used to irrigate crops vary widely in their efficiency. At the lower end of the efficiency spectrum are systems such as canal irrigation, field flooding, and sprinkler based irrigation. On the higher end are targeted irrigation systems like drip irrigation. Unlike the former methods, drip irrigation delivers water to plants in a way that reduces evaporation, and generally delivers no more water than the plants need. In some instances however, drip irrigation is not an option. Under these circumstances, farmers can use modern sensors to determine the moisture content of their fields, and tailor their irrigation efforts accordingly.
High Quality Seeds
Recent research shows that smallholder farmers (who grow around 80 percent of the world’s total food) have very limited access to high quality seeds. This is a relatively simple problem to fix, as high quality seeds are fairly easy to come by. After a farmer acquires such seed, they can usually continue to reap benefits of high yield varieties for many years into the future, by saving and replanting the seeds that they harvest each season.
Better Monitoring Technology
Farmers, particularly in developing countries, often don’t know exactly how much water and nutrients their plants need. These days, scientists have developed sensors that can easily detect a soil’s water and nutrient content, and thereby facilitate the efficient application of agricultural resources.
Such technology is particularly beneficial in areas where vital resources are in short supply. In such locations, resource scarcity can cause strife between farmers. Any technology capable of reducing resource waste can, therefore, improve relationships as well as profits. (If you’d like to learn more about some of the monitoring solutions currently available for smallholder farmers, watch this TED Talk.)
Other promising monitoring technologies include remote sensors mounted on drones and satellites. These sensors can help farmers pinpoint the exact sections of their fields that are suffering from pests, disease, and undernourishment, and thereby allow for the implementation of targeted interventional measures.
Green Methods of Pest Control
Spraying conventional pesticides and herbicides on crops can wreak havoc on local and distant ecosystems. After extended periods of pesticide use, resistant weeds and pests often begin to evolve and proliferate. Alternate methods of pest control can help to prevent these issues. One of the most common is using biological methods to control insect populations. Such methods include the introduction of predatory species such as praying mantises, lady bugs, green lacewings, and certain wasps, which prey upon pests. When employing this method, farmers must take special care not to introduce species who end up causing more harm than good.
In instances when biological control is not an option, farmers can use greener forms of liquid pesticides such as essential oils to keep unwanted organisms at bay.
Cover cropping serves two primary purposes. The first is to prevent soil from eroding away from fields. This issue frequently arises when fields are left bare after harvest. With no roots holding the soil together, it is vulnerable to erosion driven by wind and water. However, if farmers plant a cover crop following the harvest of the primary cash crop, this issue is largely mitigated. The other primary goal of a cover crop is to reintroduce vital nutrients into the soil. The most important of these nutrients is nitrogen, which plants such as legumes can capture from the atmosphere through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria.
Continuous farming depletes soils of certain nutrients that cover crops are unable to reintroduce. When this occurs, farmers can safely return nutrient levels to normal by using organic fertilizers such as kelp, animal manures, oyster shells, and bone meal. While these substances are often more expensive than their synthetic counterparts, they are also far better for the environment.
Intercropping / Polyculture
Monocropping, the practice of growing a single variety of crop on one large piece of land, is the most common form of agriculture in America. Though effective in some circumstances, monocropping can deplete the soil of nutrients, and does little to foster biodiversity. In an alternative system known as intercropping, farmers place several different species of plants in close proximity to one another. This arrangement boosts plant health and leads to the creation of symbiotic relationships between species. Many farmers include animals in the mix as well for pest control and fertilization. While intercropping is usually more labor intensive than monocropping, the per acre yield of an intercropped farm is often higher than of a farm that is monocropped.