What is sustainable farming?
At Manna Hill Estate we are focussed on “sustainable farming”. In a number of cases I have been asked what this means – particularly as ‘sustainable’ seems to the latest catchcry to market all manner of things – including those that clearly are not sustainable!
In simplest terms “sustainable agriculture” is the production of food, fibre, or other plant or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities and animal welfare. Generally sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
A common follow up question is in respect of why I consider our current agricultural (industrial) farming system as not being sustainable. Our current system is unsustainable on a number of levels. I will explore these in greater depth in future blogs but here is a quick summary:
- Currently it is estimated that we lose 7 tonnes of topsoil for every 1 tonne of grain produced. Clearly we are losing topsoil at an alarming rate and our current agricultural processes, particularly soil cultivation, exacerbate this problem. It also leads to desertification and increasing salinity.
- We use about 7 times more energy to produce, store and transport our food than the energy actually inherent in the food consumed. This is only possible with the use of ancient sunlight energy (fossil fuels created by sunlight and plants millions of years ago)embodied in carbon deposits, notably, coal and oil. Not only is this leading to global warming, which of itself is unsustainable, but ultimately we will run out of this ‘ancient sunlight energy’.
- There is a growing water crisis globally with dwindling water supplies, and as more than 70% of all water consumed is used to produce food this is largely driven by our agricultural practices.
- Loss of seed diversity with 80% of global seed supply in the control of just 3 companies. We see this loss of genetic diversity not only in seeds but also in most of our agricultural enterprises with 90% of the dairy cows in the US sired by just 7 bulls. Relying on such a narrow genetic pool leaves us exposed to a disease that could wipe out the entire herd.
- Impacts on human health not only as a result of the loss of nutrients in foods but also from the use of pesticides, herbicides and other toxic chemicals with the resultant increase in cancers, auto-immune diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, etc), and hormone disrupters.
However it is not all doom and gloom. There are positive solutions to many of these problems and we have many innovative farmers in Australia who are at the leading edge of the changes necessary to get our agriculture back onto a more sustainable footing.
I will discuss some of these in more detail in future blogs.