By Erin Langager, contributing author.
There are a lot of words thrown around in conversations surrounding agriculture – conventional, sustainable, organic, regenerative, permaculture – but has anyone actually taken the time to explain what these terms really mean and how they relate to climate justice? We’ve got you covered.
Many farmers in the United States and around the world are moving away from conventional agricultural practices, which generally involves intensive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, tillage, genetically modified crops, heavy irrigation, and monoculture (single crop) production. There are many environmental and human health issues which stem from this style of production – increased rates of cancer, poor soil health, groundwater pollution, and decreased populations of insects and wildlife to name a few.
So, what are the alternatives to conventional? Below is a list of practices which have been utilized by small-scale and Indigenous farmers for centuries, and could very well be the solution to feeding our plant now and in the future.
Sustainable farming focuses on the physical treatment of the land, taking care to ensure soil health is continually improving. Healthy soils = healthy crops! Many sustainable farming operations will practice no-till or low-till planting methods, use of cover crops, and use of grass or forest buffer zones between agricultural fields and waterways to minimize erosion and runoff.
Organic farming is similar to sustainable, but is more focused on the inputs used in production by avoiding use of chemical fertilizers and GMOs. A product is not considered certified organic unless it meets the criteria set by the USDA.
Regenerative agriculture is a holistic approach to farming which considers the interconnectedness of agricultural systems to the ecosystem as a whole. This approach has been used by Indigenous communities for centuries and is designed to work with a region’s natural systems by increasing soil health and plant diversity, and integrating animals into plant production.
Permaculture describes a method that seeks to create a highly efficient, self-sustaining ecosystem by integrating agriculture into the natural surroundings. The goal is to create a system which provides food, energy, shelter, and other material needs in a sustainable way.
Agroforestry is similar to permaculture practices in that it is an integration of farm fields into the natural landscape, specifically forests. Food forests, along the same vein, attempt to mimic the natural diversity of the landscape by planting edible trees, shrubs, herbs, vines, and roots in a variety of canopy levels.
Improving our agricultural practices will be crucial in the face of climate change as we experience shifts in regional temperatures, changes in resource availability, and increasing global populations. Let us know in the comments what method you’d like to see become the new standard!
Erin is a Master of Natural Resources student at Virginia Tech with a focus on conservation ecology and sustainability. She is passionate about communicating environmental and scientific information in a way that is easily understood by everyone.