Sustainable does not mean the same thing as organic, and vice versa. Organic farming employs no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides are applied to any crops or fed to any animals through non-organic feed sources and is a subset of sustainable agriculture.
Although practiced by conscientious farmers since day one, the term sustainable agriculture didn’t come into widespread use until the 1980s. The definition of sustainable agriculture is not easy to define. It is both a philosophy and a set of farming practices. If there is a single overarching goal in sustainable agriculture, it is to work with natural processes rather than against them and to be able to meet society’s food and textile needs in the present while also ensuring that the natural resources are available and viable in the long term for future generations to meet their own needs.
Sustainable agriculture employs natural processes to address issues like soil fertility, water management, crop management, energy management and waste management. It also practices respect for animal life, limits the use of potentially harmful chemicals, makes efficient use of non-renewable resources and works to enhance the quality of life of farming communities and the larger society. This also includes a focus on mental health for farmers, their workers and their families
While conventional farms might boost soil fertility with chemical fertilizers, a sustainable farm will use the farm’s own animals to provide manure for composting, practice crop rotation, plant disease-resistant crops and companion plants to attract beneficial insects that ward off invasive pests. Animals are also allowed to freely graze on their natural diet rather than confined to pens and fed corn or other potentially processed food.
In essence farmers simply use what nature provides and do not rely on potentially harmful chemicals. Some farmers and food activists believe the definition of sustainable agriculture should go even further. For them, the goal is not only to minimize environmental degradation, but to improve the land and the health of the broader ecosystem.
Those practicing sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives into their work: a healthy environment, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Every person involved in the food system: growers, food processors, distributors, retailers, consumers, and waste managers; can play a role in ensuring a sustainable agricultural system.
Many of Australia’s agricultural sectors have developed sustainability frameworks to guide and monitor the sustainability of industry practices into the future. Other sectors have developed tools which ensure that best practice is used on farms. These industry-led initiatives demonstrate Australia’s commitment to systems of production which prioritise the health of the environment, the welfare of animals and safe and nutritious food.
The National Farmers’ Federation has developed resources on a range of sustainability and environmental programs and resources supported by agricultural industry bodies.
At a state level, Australia lacks a definitive framework and policy guideline on what counts as sustainability. Implementing a framework is believed to be a necessary step forward in the country’s sustainability efforts in the face of climate and biodiversity crises.
Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program. 2022. What is Sustainable Agriculture? | Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program. [ONLINE] Available at: https://sarep.ucdavis.edu/sustainable-ag. [Accessed 08 July 2022].
HowStuffWorks. 2022. Goals of Sustainable Agriculture | HowStuffWorks. [ONLINE] Available at: https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/sustainable-agriculture1.htm. [Accessed 08 July 2022].
Farmbuy.com. 2022. Sustainable Farming in Australia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://farmbuy.com/post/sustainable-farming-in-australia. [Accessed 08 July 2022].
National Farmers’ Federation. 2022. Sustainability Initiatives – National Farmers’ Federation. [ONLINE] Available at: https://nff.org.au/key-issue/sustainability-initiatives%E2%80%8B/#:~:text=Sustainable%20agricultural%20practices%20are%20at,stewardship%20in%20order%20to%20survive.. [Accessed 08 July 2022].
Photo Credit Gabriel Jimenez