Today is Earth Day! A day to create more awareness about how special and beautiful our planet is, but also to highlight its fragility. It’s a day to reflect on our own impact on the environment and what we can do together to stop climate change and environmental degradation.
And there are lots of things we can do! We can switch to green energy, buy less or eco-conscious products, travel less by plane (which is quite easy during the pandemic 😉) and maybe, most importantly, adapt our diet. Many of you already might be very aware of the positive impact that eating plant-based food can have on our environment in terms of our footprint, water usage and emissions for example. However, today on Earth Day we can go further and take a closer look at how the production of plant-based foods can have a really big impact on our planet.
Why is a different approach for agriculture needed?
We hear more and more voices about the fear that we won’t be able to feed the world population in the future with the land available to us. This is not just because of the population growth and the growing consumption of each person, but also because the environment is degrading and will be able to provide less food in the future. The type of agriculture that we are practicing at the moment is not sustainable as it leads to soil degradation and decline in biodiversity – plus it often leaves small farmers empty handed.
Believe it or not, the dirt under your feet is actually one of our most valuable resources when it comes to food production. A healthy and fertile soil can take thousands of years to develop and be able to provide a good ground for trees, plants and more specifically our crops.
One of the main characteristics of a healthy soil is that it’s full of life! Fungi, little insects, bacteria and earthworms break down the leaves and other organic litter that falls on the ground, and they turn it into nutrients which the plants can take up again. By digging in the soil and breaking down litter they create an airy, stable and nutrient-rich top layer of soil, which is essential for plants to grow. This organic top layer is also great at holding water, which will benefit the plants a lot during dry periods. So next time you’re digging in your vegetable patch, make sure you check to find out if you have enough worms in your soil!
This very important resource is under huge pressure because of the way we are (mis)using it at the moment. 33% of the Earth's soils are already degraded and over 90% could become degraded by 2050, largely due to agriculture and deforestation. This degradation occurs mostly when the crops are harvested and the soil is left open, without any cover of plants or roots to hold it together. A heavy rainfall or strong wind can remove the organic topsoil and leave the ground stripped from its fertility. Besides this, the use of chemical pesticides can kill the insects and fungi in the soil which will decrease its ability to create new nutrients from litter and to stabilise the soil.
Degraded soils will produce a lot less food than healthy soils, or need added fertiliser to compensate.
We always hear the more biodiversity, the better! But why is this the case?
Every plant or crop uses a different set of nutrients in order to grow. If you only grow one single crop on your land, year after year, the nutrients that this crop needs will be taken out of the soil very quickly and the soil will be left infertile. However, if you grow several crops, each with different nutrient requirements, next to each other, or rotate them every year, you will be able to use a lot more of the different nutrients available. The nutrients will also be able to replenish in time as they are not used as intensively.
Aside from this, growing a lot of different crops together is a great method of natural pest management! Every plant attracts different insects because of their taste, smell or pollen. These insects can be damaging for the plant (e.g. if they eat the plant), but they can also be very beneficial, for example for pollination or eating the harmful insects. The more different crops you grow together, the more chance there is that some of them attract predators of pests for the other crops.
Current agricultural practices often don’t take these benefits of biodiversity into account. By using pesticides, not only pests, but also beneficial insects, are killed. Bees, the world’s most famous pollinators, have been declining a lot, and if this trend continues it will become very difficult to still produce enough fruit and vegetables in the future. When we look around we often see large areas with just one singular crop like wheat, corn or potatoes. As these crops are not rotated or grown together with other crops, farmers need to use more and more fertiliser as nutrients in the soil get depleted. As there are barely any beneficial insects on the large fields of one singular crop, pests and diseases have a bigger chance to take over and more pesticides are needed to control them.
Different forms of agriculture
But there are also many different approaches to agriculture which are increasingly used by farmers and organisations around the world! Some of these different approaches are looking for ways to conserve our environment and save resources, like fertiliser and water, while producing food. They are trying to use the natural processes that occur in nature for the benefit of producing food.
You have probably heard of organic agriculture before, and seen a lot of organic products in your supermarket! But how exactly are these products different from the ones without the label?
The different organic certifications vary slightly in their criteria but in general we can say that they don’t use synthetic products like pesticides, synthetic fertiliser or genetically modified seeds. Organic farmers try to limit the use of products from outside the farm in general and to recycle the nutrients on their farm (e.g. by using their own compost or manure).
Four central principles in organic agriculture are Health, Ecology, Fairness and Care.
Organic agriculture is believed to contribute to the health of people by producing nutritious and high quality food. Good nutrition and the absence of pesticides, fertilisers and animal drugs can support well-being and prevent health issues. While growing nutritious food, it is essential that the soils are kept healthy and full of life!
Perhaps the most prominent principle when we are thinking about organic agriculture: every landscape or place has its own ecological system. This is the way that the plants, animals, soil and climate interact with each other. Instead of erasing the existing system and putting a controlled agricultural system in place, organic agriculture tries to fit food production into this system. Farmers try to use the interactions that are already there to benefit food production. They are using the natural way that soil organisms recycle the nutrients, control pests by attracting natural predators and they plant several crops together that use different nutrients. Different forms of organic agriculture also try to reduce the time that the soil is left without any crops or cover so that less fertile soil can’t be blown or washed away.
This principle focusses on human relationships as much as the relationship with animals. Every worker should be provided with good wages and working conditions. Especially for smaller farmers, organic agriculture usually seems to have a positive effect on their wellbeing and financial situation. Although more labour might be needed on an organic farm, the farmer often doesn’t have to pay for extra products like fertiliser and pesticides. This way of farming can give more income security as well; if one of the crops has a bad yield, there are still other crops to sell. Lastly the diet of the workers seems to improve on an organic farm compared to a farm where just one crop if farmed as they eat a larger variety of foods.
And then there is of course the need to take care of our planet and make sure that food production will still be available for future generations! An important part of this is to conserve our soils better so that enough soil will be left to farm on in the future. Organic farmers also try to conserve biodiversity of the insect and soil life, but also of the variety of crops. Some crop varieties are more resistant to droughts or higher temperatures, for example. It is important that we save the seeds of all these varieties of crops. We might not need them now as there are more productive varieties, but if circumstances change in the future (e.g. due to climate change), these other varieties of crops might become essential for continued food production.
So on this Earth Day, take a look to the food that you’re eating. Try to research where it’s coming from and how it was farmed. Organic agriculture is not a single better form of agriculture – there are a lot of other approaches out there that take care of the environment and conserve the soils and biodiversity. Some are certified, but some smaller farmers don’t have the certifications while they do farm in a sustainable way. Talk to the farmers on your local market to see how they practise agriculture. Or maybe even better, produce your own food in your garden, balcony or even window 😊
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