BUENOS AIRES — For the first time in history, we have successfully developed food production technologies that, while increasing the number of fields, not only prevent deterioration of the soil, but actually improve it as a resource.

They are available in Argentina, where important steps have been made regarding sustainable farming practices, including efficient use of natural resources, environmental care, traceability, and certification to assure food quality. Such technologies also ensure adequate labor conditions for farmworkers and their families and improve both the quantity and quality of food production.

The key thing now is to promote these practices, both to generate a country brand identity within markets that require more and more certifications and traceable origins and to safeguard the natural assets that sustain production.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) considers sustainable farming as applying available knowledge to sustainable use of basic natural resources to grow edible and non-edible farming products that are harmless and nutritive while assuring economic viability and social stability. Not plowing the land and keeping constant stubble cover are directly related to direct seeding, which in Argentina covers more than 80% of all lands used for grain farming. This contributes to greater biological activity, less soil erosion, reduced fuel use and carbon emissions, better water quality, improved fertility, stabilized production and lower production costs.

Crop rotation, intensified rotation, and alternating cover crops present advantages in agronomic terms by blocking pathogens, generating a balanced use of nutrients, improving physical, chemical and biological soil conditions and even bettering estate management for spreading production risks. Argentina still has a partly unresolved problem here, namely not using enough grasses in the rotation process. The reasons for this decline have been mainly institutional.

Integrated plague management optimizes control of pests and disease, reducing many of the economic, environmental and social problems associated with the use of phytosanitary products. This requires deep knowledge of the biology of diseases, pests and the environment. It is no longer about eliminating pests but keeping them below the level of economic harm, with minimal environmental impact and maximum cost-effectiveness.

Argentina's Wet Pampa, with Las Tunas lake system — Photo: Coordenadas do centro da imagem via Flickr

The efficient and responsible use of chemical products means better crop protection following responsible agronomic decisions. This entails choosing the least toxic product and greater selectivity (or controlling targeted pests without affecting other elements). Other considerations include gauging the minimum time-lapse needed between application and harvesting, correct transportation and storage of such products, workers' health and correctly managing wastewaters and packaging. Fortunately, Argentina has gone from not using Class IV chemical products (the least toxic), in 1985, to using these in 80% of cases now.

It is of the utmost importance that Argentina develop a country brand linked to sustainable food production and certified, traceable products.

Likewise, plant nutrition must become strategic through a rational fertilization plan. This will not just consider how much nutrients to apply, but their efficient use per crop in each production unit. It is a challenge to be resolved in any sustainable farming operation, as the soil's chemical balance must be maintained or recovered.

Evaluating the balance of soil nutrients would be part of this integral production strategy, which raises the importance of soil analyses. While advances have been made here, we are still restoring a very low percentage of nutrients taken from the soil during production. This has to do with the limited use of rotation in cereal farming, and with farming distortions caused by the price imperative.

We have many of the techniques for producing more and better foods, in a more environmentally-friendly manner, with traceability and certification tools like Aapresid certifications. In all cases, registered agronomists have a key role in making sure such practices are responsibly implemented.

Given these advantages, it is of the utmost importance that Argentina develops a country brand linked to sustainable food production and certified, traceable products. This is a crucial strategic challenge and one we urge all those working in the sector to tackle at the first opportunity.

*Vilella is a professor of agronomy and head of the Bioeconomy Program at the University of Buenos Aires.

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