Overview of Organic Agriculture
Sustainable agriculture, simply defined, is an approach to agriculture using farming techniques in a way that does not degrade the environment, deplete the earth’s resources, and contributes to the livelihood of communities. The 1990 Farm Bill states that the term sustainable agriculture refers to “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long term:
The Components of Sustainable Agriculture
The philosophy of sustainabile agriculture also espouses broader principles including economic, environmental, social, and animal welfare. While discussed separately here, it should be noted that the goals overlap, impacting and influencing each other.
To be truly sustainable, a farm must be economically viable. The environmental and social benefits of sustainable production methods do not always translate into immediate economic gains. That said, sustainable agriculture practices can have a positive economic impact on a farm.
Environmental concerns are central to sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture is frequently described as: ecologically sound practices that have little to no adverse effect on natural ecosystems. However, more than that, sustainable agriculture also seeks to have a positive impact on natural resources and wildlife.
Social sustainability relates to the quality of life for those who work and live on the farm, as well as those in the local community. Fair treatment of workers, positive farm family relationships, personal interactions with consumers, and choosing to purchase supplies locally (rather than from a more distant market) are just some of the aspects considered in social sustainability.
Upholding Animal Welfare
Sustainable farmers and ranchers treat animals with care and respect, implementing livestock husbandry practices that protect animals' health and wellbeing.
Differences between Sustainable and Organic Agriculture
While there are important philosophical and practical similarities between sustainable and organic agriculture, there are also fundamental differences. The term “sustainable” is unregulated and individuals are free to apply it where, when, and how they choose. Sustainable farmers may use synthetic compounds, although the emphasis is on the minimal use of chemicals that will have the least environmental impact (such as low-toxicity pesticides).
Government Organizations Supporting Sustainable Agriculture
Due to an increasing public interest in sustainability, many government agencies and organizations have furthered sustainable agricultural initiatives in some regard. There are relatively few government organizations, however, that deal exclusively with sustainability and conservation. Perhaps the most important from a legal perspective is the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS). The NCRS is the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) agency responsible for implementing and overseeing most of the conservation-based sustainable agriculture programs. The NCRS also provides technical assistance for farmers and ranchers who wish to design conservation practices.
Government Programs Supporting Sustainable Agriculture
As public concerns about the environment develop, more federal programs designed to improve agriculture’s impact on the environment are created. Most of these programs have been implemented by Farm Bill legislation. The 2014 Farm Bill (P.L. 113-79) continued and consolidated several pre-existing programs intended to help farmers transition to more sustainable farming practices in one of three ways: by subsidizing conservation improvements, by providing technical assistance for conservation planning, or by funding the research of sustainable issues.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program
Perhaps the program that most completely reflects the sustainable movement is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Its purpose is to “promote agricultural production, forest management, and environmental quality as compatible goals.”
Conservation Stewardship Program
A similar program, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP, formerly the Conservation Security Program), is intended to reward farmers who are already implementing sustainable practices.
Agricultural Conservation Easement and the Regional Conservation Partnership Programs
The 2014 Farm Bill also introduced two new conservation programs that combined previous existing programs: the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). ACEP combines facets of several preexisting easement programs by establishing two types of easements, the first being the wetland reserve easements to protect and restore wetlands.
Agricultural Conservation Experience Service Program
The 2014 Farm Bill authorizes a program called the Agricultural Conservation Experience Service (ACES) program. The Agriculture Conservation Experienced Services (ACES) Program offers individuals 55 and older temporary paid assignments to provide technical services in support of the conservation-related programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
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