It can’t be understated how vital modern agriculture is to our society and the quality of life that we all enjoy. Not only do farmers provide our food, but they’re responsible for countless raw materials for manufacturing, clothing, medicine, and more. However, when mishandled or left unchecked, agriculture can take a toll on the environment.
Tilling, infrequent crop rotation, and fertilizer application all contribute to the break down of soil structure. This, in turn, increases erosion, releases excess carbon into the air, and fills local water supplies with nitrates and other contaminants. Herbicides and pesticides used in farming can also harm soil, water supplies, and local wildlife. Some experts even believe they might be related to phenomena such as Colony Collapse Disorder.
As farmland continues to expand into new areas, concerns over agriculture’s impact on the environment continues to grow.
The Problem with Agricultural Expansion
Despite increases in farmland abandonment and overall shrinking of US farmlands, agricultural expansion continues to happen. If anything, the shrinking of existing farmlands only increases our need for new territory. After all, our population continues to grow, which means more food and resources are required.
Currently, there are over 300 million people in the US. That’s expected to increase to 438 million by 2050. The only way our population can be sustained is with agricultural expansion. The problem is, farmland typically expands into existing forests, grasslands, and wetlands. This eliminates habitat that is vital to local wildlife while releasing additional carbon into the air. It also leaves soil more exposed to wind and water erosion.
Meanwhile, older marginalized farmland is often unable to generate crops efficiently. This too is problematic for the environment. Studies have shown that former farmland lacks the diversity and productivity it would naturally have even a century after abandonment.
In 2019, a UN panel stressed that immediate change needs to happen in the agriculture industry before its too late. “Delaying action could result in some irreversible impacts on some ecosystems,“ they warned.
Thankfully, there is hope for the future.
What Farmer Can Do
As we already stated, we can’t simply stop agricultural expansion. It is necessary to support the growth of our world. However, there are a number of actions farmers and landowners can take to curb negative environmental effects, promote sustainable resources, and boost the health of their local ecosystem.
For many, it starts with adjusting general farming practices and relying less on things like tillage and synthetic fertilizers. Though tillage can help level soil, activate pesticides, and control weeds, it’s also known to damage overall soil health. Reducing the use of tillage can help, though switching to no-till farming is even better in the long run.
As for synthetic fertilizers, though they’re effective at providing nitrates for your crops, they don’t actually improve your soil’s ability to create or store nitrates. This makes for a Band-Aid solution to a foundational problem that will only grow worse over time. Not only does excessive fertilizer use create a dependency issue, but it can also lead to increased pollution of local water supplies. Strategic fertilizer application can help control usage amounts, while establishing cover crop and buffer stirps in key areas can reduce runoff.
Farmers can also participate in the growing carbon market as a way to be incentivized for taking carbon-friendly measures. Though many talk about the importance of forests when it comes to sequestering carbon, herbaceous sequestration offers key advantages. While famers currently have limited access to existing carbon markets, bills are being proposed for nationwide reform.
This could also open up additional possibilities for marginalized farmland.
As we said in our previous post, marginal and abandoned farmland can play a key roll in restoring natural habitat, sequestering carbon, and reversing the negative environmental impact of agriculture. These lands can be used to establish pollinator habitat and help address our world’s pollinator crisis. Alternatively, these lands can be used to grow sustainable biofuels such as switchgrass.
The truth is, there is a lot of potential for agriculture to help our environment as much as it helps our economy, manufacturing, and food supplies. The Conservation Reserve Program can play a vital role in making this a reality. In our next post, we’ll discuss how CRP can help create a better future for farmers and the world as a whole.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in joining CRP, establishing pollinator habitat, or harvesting native switchgrass for biofuel, contact FDCE today!