The Continuing Problems of Unsustainable Agriculture

As our population continues to grow, our need for resources grows with it. This ultimately means that farmers need to continue to produce more food, materials, and other goods. In order to do this, however, the agricultural industry needs to ensure that their practices are sustainable. 

Unsustainable farming practices can lead to serious consequences.  

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, a booming economy and an abundance of fertile soil led to farmers rapidly expanding their agricultural lands and increasing crop production. Many of these farmers were new and inexperienced, excessively removing critical grasslands while planting in excess.  

Unfortunately, the excess goods and overpriced values eventually became contributing factors to the Great Depression. 

Meanwhile, the rapid elimination of natural habitat and grasslands left soil overly exposed to wind and erosion. When drought hit much of the US in 1930, wind picked up the exposed and damaged soil, resulting in the Dust BowlThe Dust Bowl continued for 6 long, hard years, causing 2.5 million people to leave states like Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and OklahomaBy the time it was over, billions of tons of precious soil had been displaced. 

Unfortunately, unsustainable farming practices aren’t just a problem of the past; they are a present issue. 

Currently, we’re losing our country’s topsoil 10x faster than it’s being replenished. This erosion results in a loss of $44 billion dollars every year in the USOn a global scale, soil degradation costs as much as $400 billion per year 

Modern farming practices have also taken a toll on our environment. Food production accounts for over a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. 77% of nutrient pollution in our oceans and freshwater is caused by agriculture.  Agriculture is also believed to be the primary cause of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Things need to change. But before we can discuss solutions, we need to understand what is causing the problems in the first place. 

Excess Water Use (and Failure to Control Runoff) 

Agriculture is responsible for 80% or more of water use in the US. While water is critical for both crops and livestock, much of it is wasted. The EPA estimates that 50% of water is wasted in irrigation. This excess water causes problems of its own, increasing runoff. Not only does runoff increase erosion, but it generally pollutes local water supplies.  

A recent study showed that at least one pesticide used in farming can be found in 94% of stream water across the countryNutrients from farm soil can cause a number of problems for local water supplies. It may become unsafe for local wildlife, and it can create unnatural algae blooms. These contaminants may even find their way into water used by local residents. 

Excess Chemicals 

Part of the reason runoff is such an issue is because of how many chemicals are in farm soil. Every year, farmers apply roughly a half a ton of pesticides, 4 million tons of phosphorus fertilizer, and 12 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer to their fieldsMuch of these chemicals ultimately end up in local water supplies. They also release harmful greenhouse gases into the air. 

But things like excessive fertilizer aren’t just bad for the surrounding environmentthey’re often damaging to the soil itself. 

Recent studies have shown that nitrate fertilizers can actually reduce organic matter in soil over time. 

At best, excessive fertilizer use is a band-aid solution to soil health problems, and it’s a costly one. The more that farmers rely on synthetic fertilizers, the more expensive their operation becomes.  

Excessive Tillage 

Tillage serves a number of functions: it prepares seed beds, buries crop residue, levels soil, spreads nutrients, controls weeds, mixes in fertilizer, and more. When used excessively, however, it can start to create more problems than solutions. Prolonged tilling disrupts soil structure, reduces organic matter, and increases the likelihood of erosion. It also releases carbon that is otherwise sequestered in the ground.  

Eventually, excessive tilling can result in a complete breakdown of soil structure, leaving it essentially infertile.  

Creating a More Sustainable Future 

In response to these growing problems, many farmers and ag companies are already taking action to improve soil health, reduce erosion, and protect surrounding habitats. Additionally, a number of bills are being proposed that could help incentivize and compensate farmers for implementing more sustainable practices in their farmland.  

In our next post, we’ll discuss some of the ways today’s farmers practice sustainable agriculture. This includes actions such as reducing (or eliminating tillage), implementing smart irrigation, monitoring fertilizer use, establishing cover crops, and enrolling in programs like the Conservation Reserve Program.  

Make sure to read our next post to learn more. In the meantime, if you’re interested in joining CRP, we can help. FDCE provides full-service CRP solutions that make it easy to establish native grasslands, pollinator habitat, and more. Contact us today to get started.