Abstract Sustainability can be defined as the Consumption of resources at a rate that does not exceed their replenishment through natural processes, and leave for future generations. The “journey” in sustainability science started in 1999 with the publication of “Our Common Journey” by the US National Research Council’s (NRC) Board on Sustainable Development. This paper examines some of the ideas that had been developed; in addition to certain aspects of agriculture and how the different techniques can harm or save our planet.
Keywords: Sustainability, science, replenishment, agriculture Progress in Sustainability Science In 1987, the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations defined sustainability as a way to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” At the same time, the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee establishes that decisions should be taken considering the impact it could create seven generations into the future. Unfortunately, too many people in the modern industrial world still believe that the environment is something apart from themselves while the reality is that everything we do is a subset of the environment.
Background On 1999, the US National Research Council’s (NRC) Board on Sustainable Development published “Our Common Journey” explaining the importance of the development of a sustainability science and the transition to more sustainable techniques and lifestyles. At the beginning of this “journey,” science and technology where the principal disciplines involved.
Their help and suggestions had only going down from that point; sustainability had become a political problem. Politicians taking decisions on the environment when actually thinking about the economy and well-being of the territory that they represent, aren’t really the most qualified voters on the topic.
Ideas and projects not been scientifically proven and lacking of nature’s understanding, just human suggestions, had not made real progress (Miller 2012). That’s why, in the last couple of years, international reports had “address science and technology as necessary, potentially expensive, but otherwise unproblematic inputs to the process of sustainable development” (“Our Common Journey” 1999).
Sustainability On “Sustainability Science: Building a New Discipline,” Hiroshi Komiyana and Kazuhiko Takeuchi explains the need for the University of Tokyo to develop and spread the idea of sustainability. The university, in association with other institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), spend years researching and creating concepts that will sky rocket the sustainability technology. In 2005, the university inaugurated the Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science (IR3S), a research sustainability science network in Japan. Taking into account the fact that sustainability is a multidisciplinary science, many researches and discoveries are made yearly (“Our Common Journey” 1999). So many is hard to keep up with the new information. The concept of the Japanese network is a good one. Before starting a project, researches can look up if any discovery had already been made in the area. At the same time, it might help to create a solid background before embarking into strange waters (Homiyama 2006).
The authors explain that the problem of sustainability has to be approached as three different levels, global, social, and human, which are crucial for life as we now it. The first level refers to the whole planet; geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. Since it provides the natural resources, energy, and ecosystems, it can be considered vital for humans. That is why problems, such as global warming, should be at the top of our daily concerns. The social level makes emphasize in the political, economical, and industrial structures created and managed by the humankind. This level include troubles associated with economic growth and demographic rates. The last level, the human system, includes all the factors that put into threat humans.
Lifestyle, morals, and values are important for a healthy and secure life (Homiyama 2006).
All these three levels are complexly interconnected with each other; because of it, is a little hard to classify a problem in just one category. The global warming encircles the global and social system since it demands a change in society to solve an environmental problem. In the same way, the generation of wastes can be classified as social and human, due to the connection between the consumerist society and lack of education on recycling and reusing (Homiyama 2006). All these only shows that sustainability science is a very broad field that should be studied from various points of view. In other words, scholars and professionals, from politics to biologist, should work together to develop new technologies and plans for the future (1999).
Agriculture In the agricultural sector, the quality of the natural resources plays a crucial character in the picture; but, at the same time, agriculture can be harmful for the environment. After a long series of technological developments, it became clear that the agricultural methods used were everything but sustainable. The major damage caused to the environment is directly reflected into the soil. disruption of soil-mediated ecosystem services, reduce soil productivity, increase soil erosion, lead to loss of organic matter, and damage to soil structure. Agriculture has changed dramatically, especially since the end of World War II. During the second half of the 1930’s, the concept of conservation agriculture (CA) rose in the United States (Kovács). Consisting of minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining continuous organic soil cover, and crop rotating, CA represent the very first attempt toward agricultural sustainability.
Nowadays, around 125 million hectares of arable cropland practices conservation agriculture in the whole world, especially in America, Australia, and New Zealand (Kovács).
Besides retention of soil capacity, CA promises greater productivity and profit through reduction in inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides. At the same time, it allows for a greater adaptability of farming to climactic conditions. But not everything was easy; when transitioning, farmers encounter themselves with various difficulties. The control of pests, crop diseases, and weeds without the use of strong chemicals was perceived by many as a high risk of loss in the productivity. In the long term, conservation agriculture offered great benefits. Because of the increased yield and decreased inter annual variability, farmers with large or small holdings were benefited. Industrial vs. Sustainable Agriculture The best way to understand the benefits of sustainability into the agricultural sector is to compare the industrial practices and the sustainable methods. Industrial agriculture is the most practiced around the world, but it constitutes many environmental threats. Pests become resistant, so you have to use more chemicals. Livestock become sicker, so you have to use more drugs. Soil loses their fertility, so you have to use more fertilizers (Food 2013). All these results in a vicious and damaging cycle.
Health. Sustainable farms produce crops without excessive use of pesticides and other hazardous chemical inputs. Researches indicate that sustainable foods are often healthier than industrially produced foods. Organic foods contain higher levels of antioxidants, which help fight certain types of cancer; at the same time, they tend to contain significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus (Byrum 2003). On the contrary, industrial crops contain more nitrates. Also, the unsanitary conditions in factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses cause high levels of meat contamination, resulting in more than 76 million people sick, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths every year (Brubacker 2000). A clear example is the study completed by the Consumer’s Reports which revealed that 27% of store-bought chicken were contaminated with Campylobacter and/or Salmonella. These two bacteria are responsible for thousands of deaths and millions of sicknesses (Consumer’s 2008). Another alarming fact is that, because of all the chemicals to which farmers are exposed daily, they have higher probabilities of developing cancer (Food 2013).
Environment. Sustainable farmers recognize the importance of protecting the natural environment. These individuals manage their farms in a responsible manner, maintaining the fertility of the land and preserving resources for future generations by planting a variety of crops and rotating them as seasons change (Food 2013). While industrial agriculture practicers are responsible for hosting various environmental problems, including erosion, reduction of genetic diversity, and pollution of air, water, and soil with hazardous gasses, toxic chemicals, and harmful pathogens (Byrum 2003). This practices cause $34.7 billion worth of environmental damage in the US each year (Norberg-Hodge 2002).
Waste. Factory farms concentrate enormous amounts of animals in a very small area, this kind of farms generate far more manure than what the land can naturally absorb (Brubacker 2000). The excess of manure is stored in huge holding tanks or manure lagoons, and is often over-applied to fields. Not only does all this organic waste create an overwhelming stench, it also releases hazardous gases into the air, and often contaminates local groundwater and surrounding waterways with pathogens and excess nutrients. For example, a factory farm containing 5,000 hogs can produce as much solid waste as a human city of 20,000; but, unlike cities, these farms are not required to have a sewage treatment plan (Walker 2004). On the contrary, sustainable farms do not raise more animals than what the land is capable of sustaining, therefore the amount of organic waste is manageable (Food 2013). Many farmers are able to use manure as fertilizer for their crops and eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers, avoiding the pollution problems associated with manure lagoons (Norberg-Hodge 2002).
Pesticides. The average American contain, at least, 13 pesticides in their bodies (Food 2013). Industrial agriculture operations use huge amounts of toxic pesticides to eliminate pests.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 1 billion tons of pesticides are used in the US every year. These chemicals are known to damage the environment and human health. In 2004 the EPA registered 69,000 children suffering from pesticide related poisoning (US 2004). Healthy plants with a good crop rotation system help maintain pests in check without hurting the bugs needed to maintain the pollination process and ecosystem equilibrium (Food 2013). Additionally, habitat manipulation, biological control, and use of pest-resistant plant varieties can help maintain the pests under control.
Fossil Fuel. 17% of all fossil fuel used in the US is currently consumed by the food production system (Horrigan 2002). Large amounts of fossil fuel are required to plow fields, produce fertilizers, process foods, and transport foods. Sustainable farms minimize fossil fuel consumption through techniques such as no-tillage or low-tillage farming, efficient application of manure, and crop rotation. Small-scale, organic farming operations have been shown to use 60% less fossil fuel per unit of food than conventional industrial farms (Norberg-Hodge 2002).
Sustainable Agriculture Sustainable agriculture provides high yields without undermining the natural systems and resources that productivity depends on. Farmers who take a sustainable approach work efficiently with natural processes rather than ignoring or struggling against them – and use the best of current knowledge and technology to avoid the unintended consequences of industrial, chemical-based agriculture (Sustainable Agriculture Techniques 2014). One important result is that farmers are able to minimize their use of pesticides and fertilizers, thereby saving money and protecting future productivity, as well as the environment (Byrum 2003). Some of the most common sustainable agriculture techniques employed by farmers today are: Crop Rotation. This concept is defined as growing different crops in succession in the same field; is one of the most powerful techniques of sustainable agriculture, and avoids the unintended consequences of putting the same plants in the same soil year after year. Since many pests have preferences for specific crops, it is a key element of the permanent and effective solution to pest problems (Sustainable Agriculture Techniques 2014). In rotations, farmers can also plant crops, like soybeans and other legumes, that replenish plant nutrients, thereby reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. For instance, corn grown in a field previously used to grow soybeans needs less added nitrogen to produce high yields (Walker 2004).
Cover Crops. Many farmers also take advantage of the benefits of having plants growing in the soil at all times, rather than leaving the ground bare between cropping periods, which produces unintended problems (Byrum 2003). The planting of cover crops such as hairy vetch, clover, or oats helps farmers achieve the basic goals of preventing soil erosion, suppressing weeds, and enhancing soil quality. Using appropriate cover crops is worth the extra effort because it reduces the need for chemical inputs like herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers (Sustainable Agriculture Techniques 2014).
Soil Enrichment. Soil is arguably the single most prized element of agricultural ecosystems. Healthy soil teems with life, many beneficial microbes and insects live in there, but are often killed off by the overuse of pesticides (Food 2013). Good soils can improve yields and produce robust crops less vulnerable to pests. On the contrary, abused soils often require heavy fertilizer application to produce high yields (Sustainable Agriculture Techniques 2014). Soil quality can be maintained and enhanced by leaving crop residues in the field after harvest, plowing under cover crops, or adding composted plant material or animal manure.
Natural Pest Predators. Understanding a farm as an ecosystem rather than a factory offers exciting opportunities for effective pest control; many birds, insects, and spiders are natural predators of agricultural pests (Food 2013). Managing farms so that they harbor populations of pest predators is a sophisticated and effective pest-control technique (Walker 2004). One of the unfortunate consequences of intensive use of chemical pesticides is the indiscriminate killing of birds, bats, and other pest predators.
Biointensive Integrated Pest Management. One of the most promising technologies is the control of pests through integrated pest management (IPM). This approach relies to the greatest possible extent on biological rather than chemical measures, and emphasizes the prevention of pest problems with crop rotation; the reintroduction of natural, disease-fighting microbes into plants/soil, and release of beneficial organisms that prey on the pests (Sustainable Agriculture Techniques 2014). In other words, once a particular pest problem is identified, responses include the use of sterile males, biocontrol agents like ladybugs, leaving chemical pesticides as a last resort.