Thursday, July 18, 2024

Cultivating Sustainable Agriculture: Harvesting Food Security, Nurturing Soil Health and Tackling Emissions


For decades, the bulk of our food has been produced through industrial agriculture—a system dominated by large farms growing the same crops year after year, using enormous amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers that damage our soil, water, air, and climate. However, this system is not built to last, because it squanders and degrades the resources it depends on.

But a growing number of innovative farmers and scientists are taking a different path, moving toward a farming system that is more sustainable—environmentally, economically, and socially. This system has room for farms of all sizes, producing a diverse range of foods, fibers, and fuels adapted to local conditions and regional markets. It uses state-of-the-art, science-based practices that maximize productivity and profit while minimizing environmental damage. Sustainability also means the whole system is more resilient to droughts, floods, and other impacts of climate change that farmers are already seeing. Though the move to this type of system often involves some up-front costs, smart public policies can help farmers make the shift.

Through decades of science and practice, the following farming practices have proven effective in achieving sustainability, especially when used in combination:

Many farmers choose to have crops always planted in a field and never leave it barren; this can cause unintended consequences. By planting cover crops, such as clover or oats, the farmer can achieve his goals of preventing soil erosion, suppressing the growth of weeds, and enhancing the quality of the soil. The use of cover crops also reduces the need for chemicals such as fertilizers.

Crop rotation is one of the most powerful techniques of sustainable agriculture. Its purpose is to avoid the consequences that come with planting the same crops in the same soil for years in a row. It helps tackle pest problems, as many pests prefer specific crops. If the pests have a steady food supply, they can greatly increase their population size. Rotation breaks the reproduction cycles of pests. During rotation, farmers can plant certain crops, which replenish plant nutrients. These crops reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.

Permaculture is a food production system with intention, design, and smart farming to reduce waste of resources and create increased production efficiency. Permaculture design techniques include growing grain without tillage, herb, and plant spirals, hügelkultur garden beds, keyhole and mandala gardens, sheet mulching, each plant serving multiple purposes, and creating swales on contour to hold water high on the landscape. It focuses on the use of perennial crops such as fruit trees, nut trees, and shrubs all together to function in a designed system that mimics how plants in a natural ecosystem would function.

Soil is a central component of agricultural ecosystems. Healthy soil is full of life, which can often be killed by the overuse of pesticides. Good soils can increase yields as well as help create more robust crops. It is possible to maintain and enhance the quality of the soil in many ways. Some examples include leaving crop residue in the field after a harvest, and the use of composted plant material or animal manure.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an approach, which essentially relies on biological as opposed to chemical methods. IMP also emphasizes the importance of crop rotation to combat pest management. Once a pest problem is identified, IPM will ensure that chemical solutions will only be used as a last resort. Instead, the appropriate responses would be the use of sterile males and biocontrol agents such as ladybirds.

Polyculture farming is a technique is similar to crop rotation that tries to mimic natural principles to achieve the best yields. It involves growing multiple crop species in one area. These species often complement each other and helps produce a greater diversity of products at one plot while fully utilizing available resources. High biodiversity makes the system more resilient to weather fluctuations, promotes a balanced diet and applies natural mechanisms for maintaining soil fertility.

Agroforestry has become one of the powerful tools of farmers in dry regions with soils susceptible to desertification. It involves the growth of trees and shrubs amongst crops or grazing land, combining both agriculture and forestry practices for long-lasting, productive, and diverse land use when approached sustainably. Trees have another important role that maintains the favourable temperature, stabilizes soils and soil humidity, minimizes nutrient runoff, and protects crops from wind or heavy rain. Trees in this farming system are additional sources of income for farmers with the possibilities for product diversification.

As a result of practicing these activities, various benefits will be incurred. From contributing to environmental conservation, saving energy for the future, promoting public health safety and social equity, increasing biodiversity, becoming economically beneficial for farmers to preventing both soil erosion and air pollution.

Dr. Edward Mungai
Dr. Edward Mungai
The writer, Dr. Edward Mungai, is a global sustainability expert. He is the Lead Consultant and Partner at Impact Africa Consulting Ltd (IACL), a leading sustainability and strategy advisory in Africa. He is also the Chief Editor at Africa Sustainability Matters. He can be contacted via

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