What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Definitions differ, but at its heart, sustainable agriculture is about meeting the needs of the present, without sacrificing those of tomorrow—it’s farming that is environmentally sound, socially responsible, and profitable for farmers. Sustainable agriculture strives for the best long-term outcomes for forests, climate stability, human rights, and livelihoods.

Why is it urgent that we make agriculture more sustainable?

Burning rainforest in Peru

Deforestation for agriculture in Peru

Photo credit: Mohsin Kazmi

With a population projected to reach a staggering 9.8 billion by 2050, farmers will have to produce more food than ever before. Unfortunately, conventional farming methods degrade land, which actually reduces crop productivity over time—and that can prompt smallholder farmers to cut down nearby forests in search of new fertile earth. While clearing trees on a few acres of land may not cause the massive greenhouse emissions that accelerate climate change—that dubious honor goes to industrial farming for mega crops like soy and palm oil—it’s a tack that smallholders can’t sustain. If we’re to meet the needs of a ballooning population—and allow smallholder farmers to support their families—farmers of all kinds must adopt more sustainable agriculture methods.

Sustainability is always a journey: First farmers stop the most harmful practices, like deforestation and forced labor, then move toward restoring the land and improving their incomes. The Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard provides a sustainability roadmap for farmers to follow.

Key elements of sustainable agriculture

Forest conservation and agroforestry

Farmer walking through his Rainforest Alliance Certified shade coffee farm in Peru

Juan Jiménez walking through his Rainforest Alliance Certified shade coffee farm in Peru.

Did you know that agriculture is responsible for 80 percent of tropical deforestation? The more we raze forests, the more we accelerate climate change. That’s terrible news for all of us, not least of all smallholder farmers, whose crops can be wiped out by droughts, floods, and pests and diseases. Avoiding deforestation is a crucial step in making agriculture more sustainable.

Beyond avoiding deforestation, planting new trees can make farms more sustainable. Luckily, some crops, like coffee and cocoa, grow beautifully under the shade of larger trees. Nurturing existing trees and planting new ones side by side with crops—a practice called agroforestry—can bring a host of benefits. On-farm trees can help connect forest fragments, which benefits migratory species. A protective canopy regulates temperature and humidity, while many shade-tree varieties help improve the health of the soil. Fruit-bearing shade-trees, such as bananas and mangos, can provide additional income. To top it all off, shade-grown coffee tastes better, as it ripens slowly, developing complex flavors over time.

Better incomes for farmers

Farming can only be called sustainable if farmers can support their families. Fortunately, many of the approaches to improving farmer incomes improve the health of the Earth, too. Managing pests and weeds naturally, for example, reduces the need for harmful pesticides, thereby lowering costs. Planting fruit trees on farms can give farmers another product to sell, store carbon, and nourish soils.

Business has a crucial role to play in improving farmer incomes, too. Companies can help farmers with the upfront costs of adopting sustainable practices and pay more for crops that have been produced more sustainably.

Better wages and working conditions

Smiling woman picking tea in southern Malawi

Woman picking tea in southern Malawi

While most smallholder farms rely on family or community labor, larger farms tend to hire many workers. Giving workers freedom of association so they can organize and bargain for better wages and conditions, is crucial. So is addressing daunting, entrenched problems like child labor and forced labor. Working toward a sustainable agriculture sector means putting systems in place to identify these issues and remediate them.

Decent housing, personal protective equipment for workers, maternity leave, and health and safety protections are also critical. Workers should earn at least minimum wage, with employers eventually paying what is called a living wage—remuneration that allows for a decent standard of living that covers food, water, housing, education health care, transportation, clothing, and other essentials, including a provision for unexpected events.

Maximizing soil health and carbon storage

What could be more essential for farmers than healthy soil? The healthier the soil, the better it retains moisture, which can help plants survive drought. Healthy soil also leads to higher crop yields, thereby reducing the economic desperation that drives farmers to clear forests in search of fertile earth. Organic composting enriches soil and reduces the need for expensive chemical fertilizers, which also pollute waterways. In addition, rotating different types of cover crops—plants grown in the off-season to prevent soil erosion—can also greatly bolster soil quality. Another bonus: Cover crops can store half a ton of CO2 per acre, making crop rotation a powerful natural climate solution.

Water conservation

Aerial view of a stream running through a Rainforest Alliance certified banana farm in Costa Rica

Aerial view of a stream running through a protected buffer zone on a Rainforest Alliance Certified banana farm in Costa Rica.

Water scarcity is one of the most urgent crises facing humanity. According to the UN, more than 5 billion people could suffer water shortages by 2050 due to pollution, climate change, and increased demand. Certain crops, such as coffee, are not only water-thirsty, they also require copious amounts of freshwater during the processing stage. All that processing water becomes wastewater that can pollute nearby rivers and streams. To make agriculture more sustainable it’s important to find ways to reduce water usage and to keep waterways clean. One practical, low-cost solution is to plant natural tree buffers along waterways; the trees help prevent erosion and polluted runoff from entering rivers and streams (and did we mention trees store carbon?).

Integrated weed and pest management

Heavy reliance on pesticides and herbicides carries high risks, and not just for ecosystems—these harsh chemicals can also harm the health of farmers and their families. The first step, then, is to phase out the most harmful chemicals, then gradually reduce others over time. Integrated pest and weed management includes introducing natural enemies of common pests, “selective weeding” that allows beneficial weeds to replenish the soil, and managing weed outbreaks with regular pruning. Meanwhile, harmful weeds can be uprooted by hand and turned into organic fertilizer. Though more labor-intensive at first, these methods have been proven to reduce costs and boost crop yields in the long run in many cases.

Gender equality

Women harvesting coffee in India

Women harvesting coffee in India

While nearly half of the world’s farmers are women, many cannot own property or trees due to legal or cultural constraints. They’re also frequently denied access to education and excluded from decision-making in farming cooperatives. But research shows that gender equality in farming communities is absolutely vital to food security and combating poverty.

When women farmers have equal access to resources and opportunities, they can boost crop productivity by as much as 20 to 30 percent, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Closing the gender gap also has a significant impact on the welfare of children, since women are more likely to invest their incomes in the health and education of their families. Given that women make up more than 40 percent of the agricultural labor force in low income countries, gender equality is critical to a healthy, liveable future.

What can companies, governments, and consumers do?

We can’t rest the burden of making agriculture more sustainable on farmers’ shoulders alone. Adopting more sustainable practices often requires significant investment, so companies and governments need to take the lead on responsible business practices and policies. Consumers can do their part, too, by making better choices in the products they buy. Making agriculture more sustainable is urgent—and we all have a role to play.

Ramon nut, a sustainable superfood - photo by Sergio Izquierdo

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