The road to sustainable cultivation involves managing and balancing several different challenges. We briefly describe some of the most important ones here – what they involve and how different cultivation methods can move us in the right direction.
The food industry accounts for about 25% of the world's greenhouse emissions. A large proportion lies in the cultivation stage. Climate change also affects the conditions for cultivation (precipitation, temperature, storms and pests). Climate impacts from the cultivation stage are due to greenhouse gases (nitrous oxide), which are released naturally when the soil is worked and the land is cultivated. Other reasons are that production of fertilisers is energy-intensive and has a significant climate impact. Use of fossil fuels on the farm, during drying and transportation, also contributes.
Nutrients and eutrophication
Agriculture is responsible for the largest proportion of eutrophication in the Baltic Sea. The emissions also come from untreated sewage, industry etc. from the nine countries around the Baltic Sea. All crops need nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, in order to grow. For this reason, nutrients in the form of fertiliser are added during cultivation. Nutrients that the crops do not absorb can leach into surrounding soil and water, causing eutrophication. In addition, phosphorus, which is an important component of fertilisers, is a finite and costly resource.
An important and crucial factor for future food security is a functioning cycle whereby nutrients are recycled to farmland. We do not have this today. Treatment plants receive all wastewater from the community, which means the sludge contains both valuable nutrients and undesirable substances. With knowledge of the soil and crop needs and an optimal supply of nutrients, leaching into surrounding soil and water can be reduced and prevented.
Plant protection and chemicals
Use of chemical pesticides causes leaching of persistent substances that can present health risks and have an impact on the environment and biological diversity. At the same time, it is important to protect the crop in order to avoid problems with pests, fungi and weeds that may lead to lower yields or poorer quality.
Crop protection is not just chemical control, but is primarily about crop rotation, forecasts, choice of cultivar and mechanical and biological methods. There is much to indicate that the need for crop protection will increase. This is because climate change affects and alters the conditions for cultivation, i.e., precipitation, temperature, storms and pests. Use of chemical crop protection must be effective and needs-driven. A combination of different crop protection measures can significantly reduce the risk of both crop losses and adverse environmental and health effects. Integrated crop protection consists of preventive measures (crop rotation, choice of variety), regular monitoring of the cultivation location and needs-based control.
Biodiversity, which includes bacteria, plants, animals and habitats, is crucial in creating and maintaining all the natural processes and ecosystem services on which we depend – clean air, fresh water, fertile land, food production, timber etc.
Today, the Earth's natural resources and production capacity are threatened by decreasing biodiversity. Cultivation of farmland is dependent on the ecosystem services that biodiversity contributes. At the same time, intensively cultivated soil has an effect on plants and animals in the surrounding environments.
The goal during cultivation is to create optimum conditions to enable the crops in order to obtain a high, good-quality harvest. This means there must not be any competing diversity in the field. Creating favourable conditions for cultivation also in the long term, while ensuring biodiversity, requires measures both in and outside the field. Examples include well-planned crop rotation, a system of non-cultivated zones and needs-based use of crop protection.
Land use and soil fertility
As we have a limited productive area on our one and only planet, land use is an important issue. Global demand for cultivated raw materials is increasing as a result of an increasing population. More and more land is being converted to farmland, sometimes at the expense of other important values. Displacement of biodiversity, local populations' human rights, soil erosion and poorer protection against floods and storms are some examples. Another important issue is soil fertility.
The method of cultivation affect yields, soil fertility and the surrounding environment in the long and short term. This involves supply and leaching of nutrients, soil compaction and more. We have to meet everyone's needs for food from the capacity of our one planet, while protecting other raw materials and the ecosystem services we need. Cultivation must be adapted to soil type, climate and other local conditions. We need to use fertilisers and other inputs strategically and balance the area of agricultural land against requirements for short and long-term yields.
Sweden and the Nordic region have the potential to increase the acreage of farmland/agricultural land. At the same time, we are dependent on imported raw materials from countries where intensive farming is a major challenge. We must ensure responsible sourcing of these through increased knowledge, dialogue and relevant requirements.
Fresh water and water pollution
Agriculture accounts for about 70% of fresh water use and the availability of fresh water varies widely geographically.
Fresh water is a critical resource for humans and for crop cultivation. One-third of the world's countries are threatened by water scarcity – an alarming trend that is due to climate change, overexploitation and pollution.
In Sweden, we have a favourable climate and position in relation to water. Grain cultivation rarely requires irrigation. Another important perspective on this issue is that agriculture also has an impact on water resources through the leaching of nutrients and crop protection substances that can contaminate water bodies. Needs-based/optimised use of crop protection and fertilisers reduces the risk of contamination of water resources. Water availability and water use in crop cultivation are important parameters to consider when we import raw materials and food from other parts of the world.