When you walk through the aisles of a modern, American grocery store, it’s easy to forget that food doesn’t just appear out of thin air. Today’s consumers have instant access to an incredible variety of produce, meats, dairies, and grains regardless of the season or location. Modern agriculture has given us watermelon in winter and snap peas in the fall. In addition to this demand for variety, food producers are contending with the challenges of feeding a growing global population. By 2050, experts estimate that the global food system will be responsible for feeding 10.7 billion people. 

The Double-Edged Sword of Modern Agriculture

Since after World War II, the response to this growing demand has been the industrialization of food production. The post-war era saw a massive shift from many small, family-owned farms to fewer, larger, corporate farms. In the spirit of progress, the philosophy behind agriculture began to change. According to Karl Stauber, Undersecretary for the Research and Education of the Department of Agriculture, modern agriculture rested on the idea that nature is a competitor we need to overcome, and efficiency is measured by looking at the bottom line. 

This revolution included the transition from animal to machine power and introduced chemical fertilizers, agro-chemicals, synthetic pesticides, and single-cropping practices into acceptable farming. Though these methods led to higher yields and more efficient farming in many ways, they came with plenty of costs. Among these costs, according to the Agricultural Sustainability Institute of UC Davis, are topsoil depletion, groundwater contamination, the decline of family farms, continued neglect of the living and working conditions for farm laborers, increasing costs of production, and the disintegration of economic and social conditions in rural communities.

Feeding the Present Without Starving the Future

So what is sustainable agriculture? A common misconception is that sustainable agriculture means returning to the low yields and poor farmers of the 19th century, but industry experts argue the opposite is true. Rather than erasing the progress of the last 50 years, sustainable agriculture builds on contemporary practices, with a focus on healthier systems.

More specifically, according to the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, “The goal of sustainable agriculture is to meet society’s food and textile needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It’s agriculture that’s focused on feeding the present without starving the future. 

And it’s not just about healthy, high-yield crops. In their overview of sustainable agriculture, researchers Charles Francis and Garth Youngberg write, “Sustainable agriculture is a philosophy based on human goals and on understanding the long-term impact of our activities on the environment and on other species.” They go on to explain that “[sustainable] systems reduce environmental degradation, maintain agricultural productivity, promote economic viability in both the short and long term, and maintain stable rural communities and quality of life.”

This means farming practices have to be good for the environment, profitable for farmers, and support farmworkers and farming communities to be considered truly sustainable.

Rather than being a prescribed set of practices, sustainable agriculture is a philosophy that allows farmers and farmworkers to use technology to raise crops and livestock with less waste and more efficiency. Every person involved in the food production system– from planters to sellers– plays a role in sustainability. That’s why Northerly is so stringent about our supply chains and tracking our products from seed to shelf. 

Monitoring environmental impacts

Sustainability starts on the farm, whether that means modifying growing practices for healthier soil, or integrating tech so we can harvest more efficiently. The things we’re most focused on are soil biodiversity, efficient water use, cutting down environmental pollution, and integrating renewable energy while reducing our overall energy use. 

Farmworker well-being and social conscience

Sustainable agriculture is farming with a conscience. According to a report from the United States Department of Agriculture, sustainable farming tends to attract workers from diverse backgrounds, academic disciplines, and farming practices. From the soil experts and nutritionists that ensure the high quality of our food to the pickers and packers who get it into our customers’ hands, every person is a crucial part of the system. When you invest in sustainable agriculture, you know you’re supporting workers getting fair wages, improved working and living conditions, and best practice safety protections. 

Strengthening local economies

According to reports by the US Department of Agriculture, one of the biggest victims of industrialized farming has been farmers themselves, and in turn, farming communities. With its focus on short supply chains and local partnerships, sustainable agriculture is working to strengthen local economies. Most importantly, sustainable agriculture relies on farmers, farmworkers, and communities coming together to solve the industry’s most complex problems. 

Food Systems, Not Production Steps 

Rather than the food production process being a series of steps– planting, growing, harvest, packaging– sustainable agriculture views the entire process as interconnected systems. USDA researcher Paul F. O’Connell says, “This approach encompasses the whole farm, relying on the expertise of farmers, interdisciplinary teams of scientists, and specialists from the public and private sectors.” In sustainable agriculture, advances in technology—and innovative applications—support all of these systems. In fact, 31% of farmers report that new technology and equipment have been the primary tool in creating more sustainable practice. Technology allows for closer monitoring of inputs and yields, creating less waste and more efficiently using resources such as soil, water, and fertilizer. 

But What About Organic Food?

Importantly, sustainable and organic are not interchangeable terms. In truth, many industrial organic farms are highly unsustainable. The problem is that organic farming is primarily concerned with the production side of things—the products used to grow crops. On the other hand, sustainable agriculture focuses on the system of food production, 

According to a comprehensive 2017 study published in the journal Science Advances, “While organic farms are friendlier to wildlife such as bees they are not always kinder to the environment overall, the study says. This is because organic farms produce less food on the same area of land compared to conventional farms. Lower organic yields mean that more land is put to work. And for the same amount of food produced, organic farms also tend to release more nitrogen pollution than conventional farms.” 

In fact, in recommending ways organic farming could become more environmentally-conscious, the report recommends many of the steps sustainable farmers are already doing, such as rotating crops and focusing on soil health. According to researcher Verena Seufert, “If you want to make organic sustainable, you must include environmental best practices in regulations.” 

Sustainability is a mindset

Therefore, instead of being a prescribed set of practices, sustainability is a mindset that challenges stagnancy and relies on deliberation around the impact of different practices. It’s a philosophy or way of life. Most importantly, it’s about changing the way we work with the natural world so we can keep feeding a growing global population for generations to come.