Our family farm has practiced all three farming systems simultaneously – conventional, biotechnology and certified organic. These farming systems are not mutually exclusive and really require only variations in management than anything else. There is not one “philosophy” that makes a farm more sustainable than another because one must take into account the soil type, weather patterns, and growing region as important impacts toward advantages and disadvantages of what might be a sustainable practice as compared to another region. There is no cookie cutter methodology that says one method is superior to another as the success of a certain technique varies by soil type, weather pattern and growing region. These three things are the most critical to sustainability over any system or technique.
First to clarify, “GMO” is not a method of farming, it is a type of plant breeding. To say that “GMO” is a type of farming, is like saying “mutagenesis”, another method of plant breeding, is also a type of farming. Since both conventional and organics use mutagenesis in plant breeding, would we then call this “mutagenesis farming”? I think not.
Today’s modern agriculture has a lot of cross over with Holmgren’s 12 principles of permaculture. We as farmers, regardless of the method of farming we employ, are putting best management practices on the ground to ensure that our resource conservation efforts maximize our return on investment, meaning preservation of our land as the farm’s main asset for now and for the future. This means that by combining modern agricultural technology with the philosophy of soil health, resource conservation, and reducing our environmental impact, farmers have moved all types of farming systems along the sustainability continuum. Farming will always have impact, all human activity does, but what we as farmers strive for is to minimize that impact to the extent possible.
For us on our “conventional” family farm, we have been conscientious about building soil health by planting cover crops and green manures, practicing no-till and conservation till agriculture, performing crop rotations, use of our margins via buffers and insectaries, filter strips and water quality improvements, practicing integrated pest management, and reducing our environmental impact. We have been doing cover crops and no-till agriculture since the 1960s. To us, these practices are standard operating procedures regardless if we are conventional or organic or biotech, they are simply how we farm.
The chart below shows the practices that we have used on our farm for each farming system:
Organics has parentheses around no-till because for us, following Rodale’s no-till recommendations wasn’t successful. This leads to my main point about how soil types respond differently to different farming techniques. What works several hours to the north of our farm on heavy Pennsylvania soils, doesn’t automatically extrapolate to our Delmarva Coastal plains sandy loam soils with different growing conditions and weather patterns.
Our farm has received a certification for being an agricultural steward. This certification is an assessment of our natural resource conservation efforts and a review of our sustainable management practices. It is something we are quite proud of and worked hard to achieve. It isn’t about what “type” of farming we practice; it is about being a good steward of the land. You can read more about that here on my blog.
So to answer your question – there is no “one” type of farming that has exclusive rights to the term “sustainable agriculture”. Certainly the practices in the chart are sustainable practices but the practices don’t define the farming system exclusively. Each farm must be evaluated on its own merits and practices in consideration of its soil types, growing region, and weather patterns. As conventional farmers or even “GMO” farming as you put it, we have implemented much of the philosophy and practices of organics and permaculture. For us, it’s about using the best of all tools and all systems to achieve maximum sustainability for our family farm.