The conservation of natural resources, such as water, soil and its fertility, organic matter and minerals, plants, and animals, the conservation of the environment and the biodiversity surrounding us is a priority for environmental sustainability. Agriculture in this regard is considered a usurping activity of resources, primarily when carried out with methods that do not respect nature and exploit and impoverish the soil. Agriculture and livestock farming, if well managed, represent excellent opportunities to regenerate resources, making them available for future generations.
To conserve resources and avoid their deterioration or extinction, it is first of all necessary to consider their speed of regeneration, as each natural resource takes different times to renew itself. Resources with a slow regeneration rate of thousands of years are called non-renewable, while those with fast rhythms and, in theory, more available are considered renewable. Today the availability of renewable resources has also decreased, as their rate of extraction and consumption by a human is more significant than their speed of regeneration. That is why they need to be used rationally, to avoid excessive exploitation and to achieve their preservation over time.
Land use for agriculture, for example, can cause resource deterioration, with loss of soil fertility and increased environmental pollution. One way to reduce the impact of agriculture is to limit the number of agricultural operations such as ploughing, passages during fertilization treatments, and phytosanitary products.
For this purpose, non-invasive practices must be developed that exploit resources to a minimum, waiting for their regeneration time. To avoid the degradation of agricultural soils, correct management of lands, with alternating crops, decreasing until altogether avoiding using chemical fertilizers and agro pharmaceutical. Introducing agroecological practices and, letting the plots of land rest, alternating cultivation in a careful and planned manner are methods that allow harmony between agriculture and conservation of natural resources.
All these practices are part of the so-called “regenerative agriculture“, which provides for the reduction of fertilizers and the preservation of nutrients through three principles:
- keep the ground covered all year,
- minimize soil disturbance,
- maximize crop diversity.
The presence of livestock is a fundamental part of reusing all nutrients regeneratively and keeping the roots alive. In the closed cycle of the farm, nothing is wasted: the food waste is used to feed the animals. At the same time, the manure is reused as organic fertilizer. Thanks to livestock farming, nutrients in the soil such as nitrogen, phosphorus and primary carbon are replenished.
Although agriculture and animal husbandry is a source of greenhouse gases, the processes can absorb some of the emissions with a cyclic flow regulated by a continuous exchange between plants, animals and the surrounding environment. In practice, agriculture and animal husbandry are the only human practices capable of absorbing carbon and generating it. Future agriculture will have to be increasingly oriented toward sustainability and conservation of resources. The balance with animal husbandry is the key, along with other tools, to avoid the massive use of chemicals, water pollution and the environment.
Thanks, for example, to biological, genetic and precision techniques, agriculture can avoid or cure diseases. Or to use molecules of natural origin, such as biostimulants making plants more robust and less susceptible to stress and parasites and more competitive with wild infestive flora, pheromones or insects that act as traps to confuse harmful species for cultivated plants or to limit fungal attacks. Modern genetic and molecular biology techniques instead provide for selecting the most suitable plant varieties to respond more efficiently to specific issues such as disease, pests, drought or climate change. Precision agriculture, finally, is beneficial for defence activities because with mathematical models applied to data, with the use of aerial images from satellites or drones and with sophisticated Decision Support Systems (DSS), the risk of specific infestations in crops or orchards can be foreseen.
Another of the most relevant issues is undoubtedly water resource conservation, which is vital in agriculture for the growth of plants and which is becoming increasingly scarce. Saving water through the development of projects for managing water basins and protecting its quality by avoiding pollution is essential. Here, too, technology is of great help, thanks to the development of new high-efficiency irrigation techniques, depending on the crop type and the water source used. For example, drip irrigation systems allow water to be administered in very localized sites in the soil adjacent to the roots to minimize waste.
The bucolic vision of agriculture, prevalent today, is not helpful to conserving the land and biodiversity, and therefore to conserving the various living species, their genetic resources and ecosystems. Digital technologies, computer science and communication are much more helpful instead. Current and future agriculture see professionals aware that their choices fundamentally impact preserving the natural environment. The union among agronomists, computer scientists and communicators will help farmers make tactical and strategic choices oriented towards sustainability.