What does “sustainable agriculture” mean? An agriculture whose methods do not deplete soil, water, air, wildlife, or human community resources. Sustainable agriculture is a term used worldwide to refer to farming practices that strive for this ideal, as opposed to methods that rely heavily on petroleum products (like gasoline, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides) and/or exploited labor.

Can sustainable methods produce enough food? Across the US, pioneering farmers are growing all major food crops (grains, dairy, meat, veggies, fruit) using sustainable methods. Though yields differ by crop and growing region, in general, sustainable methods achieve average yields (which are usually calculated on a county-wide basis).

What do sustainable farms do about insect pests and weeds?
There are innumerable sustainable pest and weed control practices. They are all guided by some general principles:

– Disruptions to the farm ecosystem (with synthetic chemical insecticides, herbicides, fungicides or fertilizers) should be kept to a minimum.
– Biological diversity (many different types of plants and animals) should be encouraged.
– Healthy, biologically-active soils lead to healthier, more insect and disease resistant plants and animals.
– Natural or supplemented populations of beneficial insects (good bugs) will keep pests (bad bugs) below economically damaging levels. Many sustainable farmers purposely grow plants that will attract beneficial insects.
– Weeds can be controlled by hand hoeing, mechanical cultivation or mowing, burning, careful watering, shading, animal grazing, or other innovative nonchemical methods.

How do sustainable farms fertilize? Fertile soils have a balanced mix of minerals, organic matter, microorganisms and macroorganisms (like earthworms). Sustainable farmers keep these components in balance by adding compost, minerals, naturally occurring fertilizers (like bloodmeal or bat guano), and by plowing back into the soil crop residues or crops grown specifically for fertility.

Are any large farming operations using sustainable methods? Yes, although “large farm” is a relative term depending on the growing area. There are farms using sustainable methods in California, the Western states, and the Midwest that are many thousands of acres (large by any measure), and farms in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and Southern states of many hundreds of acres (large for their areas).

What does “organically grown” mean? “Organically grown” is a legally defined term that tells you how a food or fiber crop was grown. 30 states have their own legal definitions. The federal Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (the particulars of which are still being hashed out in 1997) defines national organic standards, which generally:

– require organic farms and organic handlers to be “certified,” that is, inspected by a disinterested third party
– require that an organic farm be increasing its soil fertility through sustainable soil-building techniques
– prohibit synthetic pesticides and fertilizers

Why do organically grown foods cost more? There are a number of reasons, but the price of organic products can also be thought of as less expensive in the long-run. Prices can be higher for organic foods because:

– Higher quality products are more expensive to produce.
– Growing organically is more management and labor intensive.
– Most organic food is produced by smaller farms that do not have the economies of large-scale industrial agribusiness.
– The organic market is still limited by low supply, so prices are higher than they might otherwise be.

However, another way to think about food pricing is to imagine the true, full cost. By buying less expensive foods grown with air and water polluting chemicals, you are paying some of the cost now, and paying quite a bit later when, as a taxpayer, you fund groundwater cleanup, environmental restoration, or toxic agrichemical waste cleanup. In other words, the extra twenty cents on the pound you may pay for organic food could be considered insurance against future environmental degradation.



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