By Rémie Matta. Edited: Bettina Renner
Although “agri” refers to “field”, and “culture” refers to “cultivation”, the term “agriculture” is a rather complex term. It is broad in the sense that it encompasses a large variety of practices and activities. In addition to its core of land cultivation, it includes fertilizer application, chemical and natural pest control, sometimes composting or plant breeding, raising fish and much more. How can we understand all the different categories and systems within agriculture? And more importantly, how can we judge which type of agriculture is harmful or beneficial?
Agriculture is traditionally, but not exclusively, divided among two approaches: industrial and organic. Since many genres fall under these umbrellas, understanding their particularities is essential. Rather than viewing it as binary, agriculture should be seen as a practice that stretches over different dimensions. Not only is this approach more realistic, it also offers this science and art more justice. It is not just organic or industrial, just like it is not just “good” or “bad”.
The adoption of industrial agriculture paved the way for intensification, optimization of food per unit of land, labor, and other resources. This gave rise to the adoption of practices and technologies including mono cropping (which is the practice of planting the same crop over a very large area in order to make farming activities faster and more efficient. Monocultures have major drawbacks such as soil erosion and nutrient depletion (Gebru, 2015)), dwarfing cereals, production of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, plant breeding, advanced irrigation and use of more machinery. Despite the heavy criticism that industrial agriculture faces, it contributes to the creation of jobs and food security on different levels
Organic agriculture meanwhile gains popularity as a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It utilizes practices such as crop rotation, intercropping, minimum tillage, use of organic fertilizers, cover crops, and nitrogen fixing crops (Gomez et al., 2015). Even though organic agriculture is less harmful than industrial, it still runs on competition and yield maximization, this is why it also follows practices like mono cropping.
As mentioned, industrial and organic are just two types of agriculture. Other types exist and what differentiates them is not just one factor. These alternative types include conservative, precision, soil-less, regenerative, permaculture and agroforestry.
Conservative agriculture is one type of agriculture that is very close to industrial (conventional) but it differs with its usage of minimum tillage, and it follows a core philosophy which revolves around three principles: reducing soil disruption, maintaining soil cover and using crop rotation (Hobbs et al, 2008).
Another type is precision agriculture where farmers or engineers also apply fertilizers and pesticides but in very specific and more controlled quantities. While this looks like an ideal alternative, it is important to note that this requires skilled labor and a lot of extra work to collect data, and maintain the equipment.
Moreover, there is soil-less agriculture of which aquaponics and hydroponics are the most common. While both offer solutions for the problem of pesticides and other chemicals, and make it very easy to create urban farms, they require a lot of energy and skilled labor. Furthermore, not all hydroponics and aquaponics farms are the same; some are closed systems and some are open systems, while some are built in greenhouses and others in warm open spaces. Adding to that, both systems have a limited options of crops that can be cultivated.
Looking deeper into the aforementioned types depicts that energy, location, crops and resources play a prominent role in shaping farms. Other types of agriculture also show us how different purposes and approaches can have an effect on the system.
Agroforestry, regenerative agriculture and permaculture, which are all very similar in practices (stemming from the traditional organic agriculture), all have different goals and approaches. Agroforestry, for example, is the study of the interactions between plants, animals, humans, and the environment within agricultural systems (Altieri, 2018). Regenerative Agriculture describes reversing climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity. The key to regenerative agriculture is that it not only “does no harm” to the land but actually improves it, using technologies that regenerate and revitalize the soil and the environment. Whereas permaculture’s uniqueness is that it has at its very core a set of three ethical principles: care of the earth, care of people, fair share, and its main focus is on how a farm is designed (Beste, 2019).
In order to have a clearer picture about the sustainability of a farm, looking at its context is key. Many other questions can arise like for example “What region is this farm in? Where does the water come from? What is planted? How much energy is required? Where is the farm located? Who is it owned by?”, and this is where we start to understand which factors are the most important and what we should consider when evaluating a farm
Altieri, M. A. (2018). Agroecology: the science of sustainable agriculture. CRC Press.
Beste, A., 2019. Comparing Organic, Agroecological And Regenerative Farming – Organic | ARC2020. [online] Agricultural and Rural Convention. Available at: https://www.arc2020.eu/organic-agroecological-and-regenerative-whats-the-diff-organic/
Gebru, H. (2015). A review on the comparative advantages of intercropping to mono-cropping system. Journal of Biology, Agriculture and Healthcare, 5(9), 1-13.
Gomez, I (TECA) & Scialabba, N.( FAO) (Ed.). (2015). Training Manual for Organic Agriculture.
Hobbs, P. R., Sayre, K., & Gupta, R. (2008). The role of conservation agriculture in sustainable agriculture. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 363(1491), 543-555