Sustainable Agriculture and Adaptive Farming Systems
Sustainable land management has been defined broadly by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as…’about people looking after the land.’ This is underpinned by the recognition that agriculture is dependent on the health of natural systems in the long-term.
Landowners and agricultural industries have the challenge of integrating production systems with natural systems to ensure the land continues to deliver viable yields capable of supporting family livelihoods and rural communities.
Natural systems are dynamic and complex. They involve soil, water, vegetation, animal and microbial interactions and processes that, when in balance, provide a healthy environment for production. Several compounds essential for life cycle through living and non-living systems. Links to more information on these cycles are provided below:
Understanding natural cycles will help landholders maximise the benefits provided by ecosystems services.
Productive agriculture in Western Australia depends on ecosystem services, defined as ‘the benefits to humans from the environment including both direct and indirect contributions to human wellbeing,’ (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (UK) 2011).
This includes things the environment does to enhance production, which can make the difference between prosperity and financial loss. Free services like pollination by bees, rain watering crops, bacteria fixing nitrogen from the air, volunteer grasses feeding sheep, fungi helping crops access water, earth worms breaking down organic matter and aerating the soil etc. would all cost significant amounts of money if growers were to achieve the same results by artificial means.
Many ecosystem services require a medium to long-term view to maximise the value obtained from the land but can be well worth the investment.
Further information: http://www.agriculture.gov.au/ag-farm-food/natural-resources/ecosystem-services
Flexibility and Adaptation
The complexity of natural systems means the best approach to sustainable land management is flexibility and adjusting farming activities to accommodate changes and lessons learnt through trial and error.
Adaptive management approaches cycle through planning, implementation, monitoring and adjustment phases as shown in Figure 1.This approach enables landowners to adjust practices based on their own experiences and has led to a continual drive in innovation.
Monitoring to assess the impact of changes is essential and has mainly focused on productivity and economic measures. However, monitoring must also embrace natural resource indicators such as soil health to ensure long-term resilience to climate change, severe weather events and fluctuating market prices.
Figure 1: The Adaptive Management Cycle (from CSIRO, Management Strategy Evaluation)