Let’s be honest, even though some people don’t want to admit that farming practices and food choices affect our environment, our health and our future, the current agricultural food system is hardly set up to be anything beyond efficient and profitable. However, things are slowly changing. On January 1st, California enacted a law requiring all eggs sold in the state to come from chickens given far more spacious living quarters. The result has been a mad scramble (no pun intended) for egg farmers to revamp henhouses to fit the new standard, for retailers to get their hands on compliant eggs, as well as a sharp decline in egg production in California, and an increase in the cost of eggs at the grocery store. Chipotle has also garnered recent headlines when it stopped serving pork in its stores due to a vendor failing to comply with the company’s humane housing requirements. Kudos to California and to Chipotle for standing up for animals, even when productivity and money are in the way! These events have received lots of media attention, which is good news in terms of highlighting the true cost of humane animal production for food, however, they are only small baby steps toward a real sustainable food system.
The fact is that animal consumption is undeniably unsustainable, but beyond that, farming practices that employ pesticides, wasteful water usage, a lack of biodiversity and crops that aren’t suited to their ecological environment are just as unsustainable. We need a profound change to feed the estimated 9 billion people on the planted expected by 2050. The secret is to produce more safe and healthy food, using fewer natural resources and with less environmental impact. While there is plenty of debate over methods and no quick solution to answer these needs, there are some incredibly ingenious new ideas for a more sustainable food future.
Here are a few:
1. Produce Safe and Healthy Food
The debate rages about how we will feed the expanding population without genetically modifying crops to become more resilient thereby producing higher yields. GMOs are undeniably scary and for the most part, untested in terms of their long term effects in human consumption. But a good solution for producing high yields that compare to genetically superpower plants is difficult to find. However, one start up company, Apeel Sciences, has created an antimicrobial film that protect plants without the use of pesticides. By recycling agricultural byproducts, the company produces films “that fortify the surfaces of fresh fruits and vegetables, forming an ultra-thin barrier that camouflages crops and shields produce from both biotic and abiotic stressors,” much the way water plants evolved to protect themselves when they migrated to land. This technology could be a game changer, and put a significant dent in the pesticide usage associated with food production.
2. Conserve Natural Resources
Reducing the amount of pesticides used in farming will greatly conserve water resources which are already heavily contaminated by pesticide use in both agricultural and urban areas. But aside from reducing the contamination of available water, there are some interesting new ideas for recycling the water we have already used. The most obvious source, albeit a somewhat unmentionable one, is our own urine. “Peecycling” is the term for using human waste water to fertilize and water the crops we eat. The concept, while initially may seem a little ‘icky’, is nothing new. Documentation of using urine as fertilizer goes back to 1867, and it makes perfect sense. Urine is naturally sterile and high in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, a triad of nutrients known in farming as ‘NPK’, and they are also found in commercial chemical fertilizers. These highly concentrated nutrients can lead to algae blooms in water sources if left untreated, because they create a rich growing environment. Unfortunately, algae blooms monopolize oxygen, creating dead zones in which nothing else can survive in rivers, streams and oceans. In 1972 a provision was added to the Clean Water Act requiring waste water treatment plants to remove the NPK triad before water was released, a process that is both energy intensive and expensive. The Rich Earth Institute aims to reduce the amount of urine required to be treated in wastewater facilities, and recycle it into crop fertilizer. It may take some time before the public can get used to the idea of ‘closing the nutrient circle’, but the Rich Earth Institute is banking on it, and even accepts urine donations.
Land conservation is another component of sustainable farming. Forests and natural ecosystems are consistently demolished to make way for large farms, with little regard to the effect on the remaining ecosystems or environment impact. As land resources become unavailable, ingenuity is needed. Rooftop or patio gardens, aeroponics, hydroponics, aquaponics, and other alternative growing systems, or repurposed space may be the future of sustainable farming, such as the underground gardens grown in abandoned tunnels underneath London, an indoor garden in an old Sony factory in Japan, or indoor living ecosystems built right into your home decor.
3. Deliver Services For The Ecosystem
The last component of a sustainable farming future is to fit the production of our food into the relevant ecosystem. Agriculture is a man made invention and a relatively new one compared to the ecosystems of our planet. We couldn’t feed the world’s population without some sort of food growth management, however, that doesn’t mean that managed agriculture needs to supersede the needs of it’s environment. By planting crops in locations where they are native or well suited, employing companion crop methods, agro-forestry, and permaculture practices will ensure food production and farms are a part of the local ecosystem, minimizing pesticide use and wasted resources. And cleaning up current resources in a mindful, sustainable way, such as implementing natural, water cleaning wetlands to urban waters sources, is key to a brighter food future for us and for the planet.
Lead Image Source: Flickr