Rice Fields (photo from www.xsc.hu)
The MA (Millennium ecosystem Assessment) defines an ecosystem as:
“A dynamic complex of plant, animal, and microorganism communities and the nonliving environment interacting as a functional unit within an explicit space. Humans are an integral part of an ecosystem.”
In other words, an ecosystem is like a balanced scale that that can be tipped in one direction or another. Our goal is to keep both sides even so that we will not lose the things we need for survival. Ecosystems are dynamic producers. Like a free market, an untouched ecosystem will produce a bounty of resources for those around them to use. Thus, we must be careful not to consume the resources that are an integral part of the ecosystem.
Over the years, farming and agriculture have greatly improved. New technologies allow for more efficient production and a healthier crop. But this technology is a double-edged sword. Accompanying these benefits are problems such as the depletion of topsoil and the pollution of groundwater. However, there is a cure for every ill. The solution to the problem of unsustainable agriculture is to search for ways to make it sustainable.
Today this movement for sustainable agriculture is garnering increasing support and acceptance within mainstream agriculture. Not only does sustainable agriculture address many environmental and social concerns, but it offers innovative and economically viable opportunities for growers, laborers, consumers, policymakers and many others in the entire food system. (1)
Food! It is one of the most important staples for our physical existence. How many of us go for more than 3 hours without wondering about what we are going to eat next? Where does this food come from? It comes from the agricultural world around us. Many “experts” believe that the food supply in the world is shrinking. People have worried about this since 1798, when Thomas Malthus predicted that the demand for food would be greater than was available. The increased food production that we currently enjoyed has been a result of high-yield crops and intensive farming. Farmers have increased production by a factor in 2.6 from the 1950’s to 1980. As of the year 2007, however, food production has fallen for the last 3 years out of 4 due to droughts in the USA and Australia. In addition, the population is still growing at a rate of 2% per year. Are we in danger of running out to food? Only time will tell.
However, here are some of the techniques that can make food production more sustainable:
Sustainable techniques yield more crops and keep pests under control without using excessive pesticides. The first of many ways farmers can do this is by using crop rotation. Instead of growing the same crop in the same field year after year, the farmer grows something different each year. If a crop is always grown in a specific spot, then pests that are partial to it will continue to live in the same area all the time. Crop rotation makes pest control easier. And it also does not deplete the same resources from the soil.
Instead of leaving a field empty while rotating crops, farmers can spread the land with a cover crop, such as clover, oats, or alfalfa. Cover crops usually aren’t sold, but plowed back into the ground for fertilizer. They reduce chances of erosion, enhance the quality of the soil, and prevent weeds from springing up. The advantage of cover crops like clover or alfalfa, is that they put nitrogen, a natural fertilizer, back into the soil.
A key element to successful agriculture is the right soil. Soil needs to be kept healthy. When too many pesticides are mixed into soil, it becomes less productive. It is highly advised that manure and compost be mixed in with soil because they enrich the soil’s health by putting trace elements such as boron, selenium and manganese back into the soil. They also add the needed nitrogen for enhancing growth.
Many types of birds, insects, and spiders are natural enemies to agricultural pests. Farmers should take advantage of that! If a farm is inhabited with plenty of pest predators, including ladybugs, it will need fewer pesticides.
We need to preserve what we have today so that we do not run out tomorrow. In other words, if we use up all of earth’s precious soil, what are we going to do when it can no longer produce? We need to think not only about the present, but also the future. Sustainable production requires everyone to chip in. If you have one farmer using natural predators though his neighbors aren’t, his ladybugs will be killed by the neighbors’ pesticides.
Drought (photo from www.sxc.hu)
Water is the second part of the equation. Our crops have to have water to grow. Here we will look at what has happened to area around the Aral Sea. It is a large body of water in central Asia. It has been a main water source for the people in the surrounding areas for thousands of years. It has also played an important role in agriculture, as the people living there have been able to irrigate with water from it. The Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers formerly contributed the water needed to fill the Aral Sea. But about 40 years ago, the water from these rivers was diverted, and the Syr Darya and Amu Darya stopped flowing into the Aral Sea for the most part. Increased population and development were the main factors that caused this to happen. Now that less water is flowing into the Aral Sea, the water level has dropped and the lake is has only 25% of the water it had in 1950. The climate there has changed, and agricultural productivity has fallen. The economy of this area has been severely affected.
A sustainable water system supplies its users with water, no matter what the circumstance may be. The Aral Sea is a good example of what a sustainable water source is not. When a water source is sought out, we must make sure that it must available to everyone in contact with the source. Otherwise, as the Aral Sea incident illustrates, there will be disastrous consequences.
As we can see managing our land and water resources is like that balanced scale mentioned above. When we upset that balance serious problems result. Thus we need to treat our food and water supply as we would anything else: as a freely given but precious commodity, since it is necessary for us to continue our lives. Otherwise we will be exploiting our ecosystems in such a way that we will literally bite the hand that feeds us.
Ancient Rain forest, Victoria, Australia (photo from www.sxc.hu)
What is Overharvesting? Overharvesting occurs when a type of resource (such as a fruit, animal, plant, or mineral) is too widely consumed. It is probably best explained through examples. Overharvesting occurred in Africa during the year of 1985. The Wotango tree was a very important to Europe because its bark could be used for treating enlarged prostate glands. Because the chemical compounds which the bark produced were so complex, there was no lab which could reproduce it. At first this went well because the French government had a monopoly on the system and was using the tree in a sustainable way. But after the government gave out harvesting licenses, things got out of control. Over time the number of trees became less and less, and soon, the tree will no longer exist.
The same type of thing happens when too many of a certain kind of fish are caught. Let’s look at the example of Reef codfish which is currently found in the waters of Kerala, India. This tasty fish is in grave danger of becoming overharvested. Over the past decade, the amount of large scale fishing has been increasing. Since the ocean is so large, humans often forget that sea life can easily be overfished. Large fishing companies cause problems to native peoples of the land near where they are fishing. People in third world countries need the fish to survive, but the fishing industries overharvest these fish so that the natives have little for themselves. When fish like the reef cod are caught in great numbers, the people must rely on other fish of a lower nutritional value. According to Siam-Canadian, a fishing company, seventy percent of the world’s fish are over harvested or depleted.. The reef cod could soon become extinct if action isn’t taken to curb the amount of them harvested. The countries of the world need to recognize the enormity of this problem. Further, they need to make and enforce laws to control the number of fish caught.
The rainforests of this world are also being overharvested. This should concern all of us. If measures are not taken to curb the cutting of the forests, it is estimated that they could be totally destroyed within the next 40 years. It is also estimated that 50,000 species of plants and animals are lost each year due to destruction in the world’s rainforests. One half of all animal, plant, and animal species live in rainforests. One and one half acres of rainforest land are diminished every second. The Amazon Rainforest covers 1,000,000,000 (one billion) acres, and it produces 20% of the oxygen in the world.
Rainforests also produce many other kinds of products, among which are fruit, medicinal plants and exotic woods. There are about 3,000 different kinds of fruit that grow in tropical forests. In western countries only about 200 types are consumed, but in South American countries, natives eat about 2,000 of the tropical fruits. Today, 121 drugs prescribed in pharmacies have ingredients with plant substances in them. The U.S. National Cancer Institute has discovered 3,000 species of plants that can help fight cancer. About 70% of these plants are found in rainforests. The rainforests are too valuable to use up, and we should make every effort to preserve them. It just doesn’t make sense to chop them down for wood, oil, or development. The productivity of rainforests is vital to the sustainability of the world.
Tire Dump on Fire Scotswood, Newcastle, UK (freefoto.com)
The ways that communities dispose of their waste products can cause problems for their communities or the environment. Sustainable disposal does not put toxic by-products into the air, water or soil of communities. These toxins will pollute the environment and eventually harm the people who live there.
Burning: Some people live in remote places or where garbage collection doesn’t happen. They burn their garbage in a burn-barrel or in an open fire in their back yard. However, this can be a problem because one of the main chemicals released when garbage is burned is carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is very harmful to animal life because it binds to red blood cells and does not release. An even worse problem with open burning is the small particles that end up in the air and in our lungs. There are large incinerators that burn waste. They use special equipment to remove the pollutants, and the burning can reduce the amount of waste up to 90%. Some plants even use the energy produced to generate electricity, and there are, in fact, 90 such plants in the United States. There is one currently being built in Fort Pierce, Florida that will produce the power to operate the Tropicana Orange Juice Company nearby. The residue produced from burning refuse takes up much less space than if it had been placed in a landfill. Beijing, China is just now building some state-of-the-art burning facilities to process their garbage. These plants will be non-polluting and will process between 1,000 and 1,200 tons of garbage a day.
Landfills were used for a long time when there was less population. However, many landfills are now full and other means need to be found to manage the garbage that is produced. Another problem with them is that as the things in the landfill decompose. Harmful chemicals called toxins are leached into the groundwater and can then pollute drinking water sources.
Recycling: This is the best way to reduce the amount of trash and garbage produced. It is estimated that each American generates 4.6 pounds of garbage each day! In a well-planned community, anything recyclable will be recycled. Curbside pickup encourages people to recycle more, since they don’t have to drive to the nearest recycling center to drop off the recyclables. The recycling centers should collect a wide range of things that can be recycled, like newspapers, glass, plastic, cardboard, and aluminum and metal cans. Recycling saves natural resources because they are not used up when you substitute recycled materials.
An important consideration in any trash disposal system is to remove all items that will pollute the environment, such as batteries which contain heavy metals like zinc, cadmium, and nickel, broken thermometers containing mercury, and paint. They need to be recycled on special days when hazardous wastes are collected and disposed of properly. If your community does not have such a day, find out what can be done to make one happen so that these harmful chemicals do not end up your community’s air, soil or drinking water.
Cool link: http://www.epa.gov/recyclecity/
Chipboard Factory Hexham, Northumberland, UK
(photo by Ian Britton, freefoto.com)
Air pollution is a massive problem in industrialized nations. Most air pollution is produced when people burn fuels such as coal, oil, natural gas or wood to use as energy for fueling their homes or cars, for industry or for energy production. Fifty-six percent of the United States’ electricity comes from plants that burn coal. Although the smoke coming out of the smoke stacks look like fluffy clouds, the smoke can be filled with toxic or harmful chemicals. Acid rain occurs as the pollutants are released into the air and then react with the water in the rain. The acid lowers the pH of the water and then causes damage to forests, buildings, and bodies of water. Some species of fish and amphibians to be unable to survive in water that has this lowered pH. Click here to see an example of a lake that was dead because of acid rain. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13049814 Fortunately this lake has since started to recover because of reduced emissions.
Water basin filled with minerals (photo by Vriespde, www.sxc.hu)
It is very common for farmers and gardeners to spread fertilizer on their soil so that the plants will grow to be healthier. Nitrates and phosphates are typically found in these fertilizers. The use of too much fertilizer is very bad for the plants because it can make their growth excel, and drain nutrients from the soil. Communities should be careful when they are doing agricultural work because the materials that they put on the soil can cause many problems. Fertilizer that is spread on fields can run off into streams and lakes, which then become contaminated.
Ordinary landfills are the source of many chemical substances that are contaminating the soil and consequently leaking into the groundwater. They come from the wide variety of refuse in our landfills, especially materials illegally discarded there. Some of the more common soil contaminants in landfills are chlorinated hydrocarbons (CFH), found in propellants, and MTBE, found in gasoline. Heavy metals are also a problem. These include lead (found in aviation fuel), mercury (found in old thermometers), and nickel, zinc, or cadmium, (found in batteries).
Pollution can also be the consequence of a natural disaster. For example, hurricanes often result in water contamination from sewage. Oil spills are caused by oil tankers that become damaged and leak oil and by car accidents which cause gasoline to be spilled into wet lands.
Nuclear power plants are another, more dangerous source of contamination. Nuclear leaks can produce widespread and hazardous conditions when accidents occur. The nuclear radiation released when a reactor melted down in Chernobyl, Russia, caused widespread radiation sickness, cancer and even death.
Liquid pollution (photo by Ian Britton, freefoto.com)
Communities often have a problem with water pollution. Acid rain is only one of the ways the drinking water of a community can become contaminated. Others are from agricultural run-off or chemicals leaching out of landfills in to wells or aquifers as mentioned above. Communities in the United States are now required to monitor the safety of their drinking water. The United States congress passed a law called the “Safe Drinking Water Act” in 1974 to help assure that the water in communities in the United States is safe for people to drink. Municipal water plants also treat drinking water with chemicals like chlorine to kill off any bacteria that is in the water before it is sent to people’s homes. Researchers are looking for better ways to clean the water to cause less of an environmental impact.
Another type of water treatment plant treats sewage before the water is put back into the environment. About 80% of the sewage in the United States is treated so that nitrogen, phosphorous materials, and other solids are removed before the water is released. Ten percent is treated in septic tanks, and the remaining 10% is released into the environment without any treatment at all.
All of these pollution issues impact sustainability as they make it more difficult for people to survive. A responsible society will try to eliminate these types of pollutants or if they do get into the environment, do all they can to remove them.