David A. Robinson, Fiona Seaton, Katrina Sharps, Amy Thomas, Francis Parry Roberts, Martine van der Ploeg, Laurence Jones, Jannes Stolte, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Paula Harrison, and Bridget Emmett
Soils provide important functions, which according to the European Commission include: biomass production (e.g., agriculture and forestry); storing, filtering, and transforming nutrients, substances, and water; harboring biodiversity (habitats, species, and genes); forming the physical and cultural environment for humans and their activities; providing raw materials; acting as a carbon pool; and forming an archive of geological and archaeological heritage, all of which support human society and planetary life. The basis of these functions is the soil natural capital, the stocks of soil material. Soil functions feed into a range of ecosystem services which in turn contribute to the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs). This overarching framework hides a range of complex, often nonlinear, biophysical interactions with feedbacks and perhaps yet to be discovered tipping points. Moreover, interwoven with this biophysical complexity are the interactions with human society and the socioeconomic system which often drives our attitudes toward, and the management and exploitation of, our environment.
Challenges abound, both social and environmental, in terms of how to feed an increasingly populous and material world, while maintaining some semblance of thriving ecosystems to pass on to future generations. How do we best steward the resources we have, keep them from degradation, and restore them where necessary as soils underpin life? How do we measure and quantify the soil resources we have, how are they changing in time and space, what can we predict about their future use and function? What is the value of soil resources, and how should we express it? This article explores how soil properties and processes underpin ecosystem services, how to measure and model them, and how to identify the wider benefits they provide to society. Furthermore, it considers value frameworks, including caring for our resources.
Soils, the earth’s skin, are at the intersection of the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. The persistence of life on our planet depends on the maintenance of soils as they constitute the biological engines of earth. Human population has increased exponentially in recent decades, along with the demand for food, materials, and energy, which have caused a shift from low-yield and subsistence agriculture to a more productive, high-cost, and intensive agriculture. However, soils are very fragile ecosystems and require centuries for their development, thus within the human timescale they are not renewable resources. Modern and intensive agriculture implies serious concern about the conservation of soil as living organism, i.e., of its capacity to perform the vast number of biochemical processes needed to complete the biogeochemical cycles of plant nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, crucial for crop primary production. Most practices related to intensive agriculture determine a deterioration even in the short-middle term of their physical, chemical, and biological properties, which all together contribute to soil quality, along with an overexploitation of soils as living organisms. Recent trends are turning toward styles of agriculture management that are more sustainable or conservative for soil quality.
Usually, use of soils for agricultural purposes deflect them at various degrees from the “natural” soil development processes (pedogenesis), and this shift may be assumed as a divergence from soil sustainability principles. For decades, the misuse of land due to intensive crop management has deteriorated soil health and quality. A huge plethora of microorganisms inhabits soils, thus acting as “the biological engine of the earth”; indeed, this microbiota serves the soil ecosystem, performing several fundamental functions. Therefore, management practices might be planned looking at the safeguard of soil microbial diversity and resilience. In addition, each unexpected alteration in numberless soil biochemical processes, being regulated by microbial communities, may represent an early and sensible signal of soil homeostasis weakening and, consequently, warn about soil conservation. Within the vast number of soil biochemical processes and connected features (bioindicators) virtually effective to measure the sustainable soil exploitation, those related to the mineralization or immobilization of the main nutrients (C and N), including enzyme activity (functioning) and composition (diversity) of microbial communities, exert a fundamental role because of their involvement in soil metabolism. Comparing the influence of many cropping factors (tillage, mulching and cover crops, rotations, mineral and organic fertilization) under both intensive and sustainable managements on soil microbial diversity and functioning, through both chemical and biological soil quality indicators, makes it possible to identify the most hazardous diversions from soil sustainability principles.
Rene Van Acker, Motior Rahman, and S. Zahra H. Cici
The global area sown to genetically modified (GM) varieties of leading commercial crops (soybean, maize, canola, and cotton) has expanded over 100-fold over two decades. Thirty countries are producing GM crops and just five countries (United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India) account for almost 90% of the GM production. Only four crops account for 99% of worldwide GM crop area. Almost 100% of GM crops on the market are genetically engineered with herbicide tolerance (HT), and insect resistance (IR) traits. Approximately 70% of cultivated GM crops are HT, and GM HT crops have been credited with facilitating no-tillage and conservation tillage practices that conserve soil moisture and control soil erosion, and that also support carbon sequestration and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Crop production and productivity increased significantly during the era of the adoption of GM crops; some of this increase can be attributed to GM technology and the yield protection traits that it has made possible even if the GM traits implemented to-date are not yield traits per se. GM crops have also been credited with helping to improve farm incomes and reduce pesticide use. Practical concerns around GM crops include the rise of insect pests and weeds that are resistant to pesticides. Other concerns around GM crops include broad seed variety access for farmers and rising seed costs as well as increased dependency on multinational seed companies. Citizens in many countries and especially in European countries are opposed to GM crops and have voiced concerns about possible impacts on human and environmental health. Nonetheless, proponents of GM crops argue that they are needed to enhance worldwide food production. The novelty of the technology and its potential to bring almost any trait into crops mean that there needs to remain dedicated diligence on the part of regulators to ensure that no GM crops are deregulated that may in fact pose risks to human health or the environment. The same will be true for the next wave of new breeding technologies, which include gene editing technologies.
Theodore J. K. Radovich
Organic farming occupies a unique position among the world’s agricultural systems. While not the only available model for sustainable food production, organic farmers and their supporters have been the most vocal advocates for a fully integrated agriculture that recognizes a link between the health of the land, the food it produces, and those that consume it. Advocacy for the biological basis of agriculture and the deliberate restriction or prohibition of many agricultural inputs arose in response to potential and observed negative environmental impacts of new agricultural technologies introduced in the 20th century. A primary focus of organic farming is to enhance soil ecological function by building soil organic matter that in turn enhances the biota that soil health and the health of the agroecosystem depends on.
The rapid growth in demand for organic products in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is based on consumer perception that organically grown food is better for the environment and human health. Although there have been some documented trends in chemical quality differences between organic and non-organic products, the meaningful impact of the magnitude of these differences is unclear. There is stronger evidence to suggest that organic systems pose less risk to the environment, particularly with regard to water quality; however, as intensity of management in organic farming increases, the potential risk to the environment is expected to also increase. In the early 21st century there has been much discussion centered on the apparent bifurcation of organic farming into two approaches: “input substitution” and “system redesign.” The former approach is a more recent phenomenon associated with pragmatic considerations of scaling up the size of operations and long distance shipping to take advantage of distant markets. Critics argue that this approach represents a “conventionalization” of organic agriculture that will erode potential benefits of organic farming to the environment, human health, and social welfare. A current challenge of organic farming systems is to reconcile the different views among organic producers regarding issues arising from the rapid growth of organic farming.
Charlene Murphy and Dorian Q. Fuller
South Asia possesses a unique Neolithic transition to agricultural domestication. India has received far less attention in the quest for evidence of early agriculture than other regions of the world traditionally recognized as “centers of domestication” such as southwest Asia, western Asia, China, Mesoamerica, South America, New Guinea, and Africa. Hunter-gatherers with agricultural production appeared around the middle of the Holocene, 4000 to 1500
As a case study for the origins of agriculture, South Asia has much to offer archaeologists and environmental scientists alike for understanding domestication processes and local transitions from foraging to farming as well as the ways in which early farmers adapted to and transformed the environment and regional vegetation. Information exchange from distant farmers from other agricultural centers into the subcontinent cannot be ruled out. However, it is clear that local agricultural origins occurred via a series of processes, including the dispersal of pastoral and agro-pastoral peoples across regions, the local domestication of animals and plants and the adoption by indigenous hunter-gatherers of food production techniques from neighboring cultures. Indeed, it is posited that local domestication events in India were occurring alongside agricultural dispersals from other parts of the world in an interconnected mosaic of cultivation, pastoralism, and sedentism. As humans in South Asia increasingly relied on a more restricted range of plant species, they became entangled in an increasingly fixed trajectory that allowed greater food production levels to sustain larger populations and support their developing social, cultural and food traditions.
Gary Sands, Srinivasulu Ale, Laura Christianson, and Nathan Utt
Agricultural (tile) drainage enables agricultural production on millions of hectares of arable lands worldwide. Lands where drainage or irrigation (and sometimes both) are implemented, generate a disproportionately large share of global agricultural production compared to dry land or rain-fed agricultural lands and thus, these water management tools are vital for meeting the food demands of today and the future. Future food demands will likely require irrigation and drainage to be practiced on an even greater share of the world’s agricultural lands. The practice of agricultural drainage finds its roots in ancient societies and has evolved greatly to incorporate modern technologies and materials, including the modern drainage plow, plastic drainage pipe and tubing, laser and GPS-guided installation equipment, and computer-aided design tools. Although drainage brings important agricultural production and environmental benefits to poorly drained and salt-affected arable lands, it can also give rise to the transport of nutrients and other constituents to downstream waters. Other unwanted ecological and hydrologic environmental effects may also be associated with the practice. The goal of this article is to familiarize the reader with the practice of subsurface agricultural drainage, the history and extent of its application, and the benefits commonly associated with it. In addition, environmental effects associated with subsurface drainage including hydrologic and water quality effects are presented, and conservation practices for mitigating these unwanted effects are described. These conservation practices are categorized by whether they are implemented in-field (such as controlled drainage) versus edge-of-field (such as bioreactors). The literature cited and reviewed herein is not meant to be exhaustive, but seminal and key literary works are identified where possible.
Elisabeth N. Bui
Driving forces for natural soil salinity and alkalinity are climate, rock weathering, ion exchange, and mineral equilibria reactions that ultimately control the chemical composition of soil and water. The major weathering reactions that produce soluble ions are tabled. Where evapotranspiration is greater than precipitation, downward water movement is insufficient to leach solutes out of the soil profile and salts can precipitate. Microbes involved in organic matter mineralization and thus the carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur biogeochemical cycles are also implicated. Seasonal contrast and evaporative concentration during dry periods accelerate short-term oxidation-reduction reactions and local and regional accumulation of carbonate and sulfur minerals. The presence of salts and alkaline conditions, together with the occurrence of drought and seasonal waterlogging, creates some of the most extreme soil environments where only specially adapted organisms are able to survive. Sodic soils are alkaline, rich in sodium carbonates, with an exchange complex dominated by sodium ions. Such sodic soils, when low in other salts, exhibit dispersive behavior, and they are difficult to manage for cropping. Maintaining the productivity of sodic soils requires control of the flocculation-dispersion behavior of the soil. Poor land management can also lead to anthropogenically induced secondary salinity. New developments in physical chemistry are providing insights into ion exchange and how it controls flocculation-dispersion in soil. New water and solute transport models are enabling better options of remediation of saline and/or sodic soils.
Philip Carl Salzman
Nomadism is a technique of population movement used to accomplish a variety of goals. It is used for primary production when the resources to be tapped are distributed thinly over a wide space, or are located in different places in a large region. Commonly nomadism is a technique used in a spatially extensive adaptation. Pastoralists raising domestic animals on natural pasture move from grazed areas to areas with fresh pasture, and from dry areas to those with water.
Nomadism follows regular patterns where the resources tapped are reliable and thus predictable. This is common in macro-environmental adaptations to factors such as seasons and altitude. Some pastoralists have mountain adaptations, migrating to high altitudes in summer and low altitudes in winter, an adaptation called transhumance in Europe. Nomadic patterns are more irregular when rainfall patterns, and thus pasturage, are erratic and unpredictable, as is common in desert areas with low rainfall.
Among some pastoral peoples, all of the households in the community move together. Among other pastoral peoples, a sector of the populations is nomadic; young and/or mature men migrate with the livestock, while women, children, and elders remain in a stationary home settlement. This is also the pattern in European transhumance.
Many pastoral peoples produce primarily for their own subsistence; it is common that they have multi-resource or mixed economies, engaging also in hunting and gathering, horticulture, agriculture, and arboriculture. Economic activities are not limited to primary production; patterns of predation, including raiding and extortion, against other pastoralists, farmers, and traders are widespread. Other pastoral peoples are heavily market-oriented, producing for sale, or have symbiotic relations with hunters or cultivators; it is normal that they are more specialized in their production. But pastoralists can be found at all points on a continuum between subsistence- and market-oriented.
Soil erosion by water is a natural process that cannot be avoided. Soil erosion depends on many factors, and a distinction should be made between humanly unchangeable (e.g., rainfall) and modifiable (e.g., length of the field) soil erosion factors. Soil erosion has both on-site and off-site effects. Soil conservation tries to combine modifiable factors so as to maintain erosion in an area of interest to an acceptable level. Strategies to control soil erosion have to be adapted to the desired land use. Knowledge of soil loss tolerance, T, i.e., the maximum admissible erosion from a given field, allows technicians or farmers to establish whether soil conservation practices need to be applied to a certain area or not. Accurate evaluation of the tolerable soil erosion level for an area of interest is crucial for choosing effective practices to mitigate this phenomenon. Excessively stringent standards for T would imply over expenditure of natural, financial, and labor resources. Excessively high T values may lead to excessive soil erosion and hence decline of soil fertility and productivity and to soil degradation. In this last case, less money is probably spent for soil conservation, but ineffectively. Basic principles to control erosion for different land uses include maintaining vegetative and ground cover, incorporating biomass into the soil, minimizing soil disturbance, increasing infiltration, and avoiding long field lengths. Preference is generally given to agronomic measures as compared with mechanical measures since the former ones reduce raindrop impact, increase infiltration, and reduce runoff volumes and water velocities. Agronomic measures for soil erosion control include choice of crops and crop rotation, applied tillage practices, and use of fertilizers and amendments. Mechanical measures include contour, ridging, and terracing. These measures cannot prevent detachment of soil particles, but they counter sediment transport downhill and can be unavoidable in certain circumstances, at least to supplement agronomic measures. Simple methods can be applied to approximately predict the effect of a given soil conservation measure on soil loss for an area of interest. In particular, the simplest way to quantitatively predict mitigation of soil erosion due to a particular conservation method makes use of the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE). Despite its empirical nature, this model still appears to represent the best compromise between reliability of the predictions and simplicity in terms of input data, which are generally very difficult to obtain for other soil erosion prediction models. Soil erosion must be controlled soon after burning.
Worldwide, governments subsidize agriculture at the rate of approximately 1 billion dollars per day. This figure rises to about twice that when export and biofuels production subsidies and state financing for dams and river basin engineering are included. These policies guide land use in numerous ways, including growers’ choices of crop and buyers’ demand for commodities. The three types of state subsidies that shape land use and the environment are land settlement programs, price and income supports, and energy and emissions initiatives. Together these subsidies have created perennial surpluses in global stores of cereal grains, cotton, and dairy, with production increases outstripping population growth. Subsidies to land settlement, to crop prices, and to processing and refining of cereals and fiber, therefore, can be shown to have independent and largely deleterious effect on soil fertility, fresh water supplies, biodiversity, and atmospheric carbon.