Environmental Impacts of Agriculture

The Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform explains that sustainable agriculture “is the efficient production of safe, high quality agricultural products, in a way that protects and improves the natural environment, the social and economic conditions of farmers, their employees and local communities, and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species.” Collectively, these goals are in place to ensure food security for all. Specifically, however, these goals deserve careful attention to guarantee we reach sustainability. While each carry significant weight in delivering sustainable results, attention to the environment encourages us to ponder the ways in which we can give back to nature in the way that it has given to us. To be sure, sustainable agriculture should improve the environment from which it grows.

Agronomists assess crop production according to three stages: pre-production, production, and post-production. Each phase has varying impacts on the environment. However, efforts to intervene and possibly eliminate negative environmental impacts in each phase can aid in overall productivity but also present associated problems. For example, the development of irrigation systems increased crop yields and responded to water constraints due to droughts in Sub-Saharan Africa, but created the problem of surface water depletion. In a Food Security article, Reynolds et. al. suggest that in yam farming specifically, the yield constraints vary from drought to soil infertility, but that yams presented a relatively low impact on the environment. It was only in areas that they were regularly grown that the crop contributed to “agricultural expansion, the loss of biodiversity, and land degradation.”

As environmental impacts across crops vary, solutions do as well. Reynolds et. al. show that “across Sub-Saharan Africa, many of the more-traditional maize systems maintain productivity while reducing abiotic and biotic environmental impacts by intercropping or rotating leguminous trees and shrubs, and annual legumes with maize.” Intercropping along with tree and crop rotation provide greater yields, reduce crop damage, and provide optimal use of soil. Additionally, this method of farming can prevent excess use of synthetic nutrients, which create more acids in the soil than necessary. Food Security confirms, suggesting that intercropping can improve overall soil management by reducing soil erosion and nutrient losses.

While there are solutions for maintaining soil health, deforestation remains problematic in Sub-Saharan farming practices. According to the International Institute for Environment and Development:

Africa is home to 25 per cent of the world’s remaining rainforests and 17 per cent of all forests, and these provide habitat for much of the region’s biodiversity. But the continent lost an estimated 15.6 million hectares of forest between 2010 and 2015, driven largely by agricultural expansion.

However, the need for deforestation is complicated. A Philosophical Transactions article credits urbanization with a shift in cultivating crops in peri-urban zones, but appropriate strategies, despite population growth, should be considered by local communities and governments. While deforestation may seem difficult to manage, there are a few measures outside of this issue that can be taken to avoid extreme environment effects.

Food Security suggests improving water management through irrigation systems and remaining attentive to soil and crop selection to reduce runoff. In addition to water management, avoiding overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, including crop rotation, and intercropping can maintain healthy soils. The World Food Bank makes efforts to positively impact the environment through improved storage methods, reducing post-harvest loss through conscious integration of all sectors within our global agriculture systems. This helps to create a balanced and mutually-beneficial ecosystem that lifts smallholder farmers out of poverty, allowing for the efficient distribution of food to those who need it without detrimental environmental impacts.