Luis S. Pereira and José M. Gonçalves
Surface irrigation is the oldest and most widely used irrigation method, more than 83% of the world’s irrigated area. It comprises traditional systems, developed over millennia, and modern systems with mechanized and often automated water application and adopting precise land-leveling. It adapts well to non-sloping conditions, low to medium soil infiltration characteristics, most crops, and crop mechanization as well as environmental conditions. Modern methods provide for water and energy saving, control of environmental impacts, labor saving, and cropping economic success, thus for competing with pressurized irrigation methods. Surface irrigation refers to a variety of gravity application of the irrigation water, which infiltrates into the soil while flowing over the field surface. The ways and timings of how water flows over the field and infiltrates the soil determine the irrigation phases—advance, maintenance or ponding, depletion, and recession—which vary with the irrigation method, namely paddy basin, leveled basin, border and furrow irrigation, generally used for field crops, and wild flooding and water spreading from contour ditches, used for pasture lands. System performance is commonly assessed using the distribution uniformity indicator, while management performance is assessed with the application efficiency or the beneficial water use fraction. The factors influencing system performance are multiple and interacting—inflow rate, field length and shape, soil hydraulics roughness, field slope, soil infiltration rate, and cutoff time—while management performance, in addition to these factors, depends upon the soil water deficit at time of irrigation, thus on the way farmers are able to manage irrigation. The process of surface irrigation is complex to describe because it combines surface flow with infiltration into the soil profile. Numerous mathematical computer models have therefore been developed for its simulation, aimed at both design adopting a target performance and field evaluation of actual performance. The use of models in design allows taking into consideration the factors referred to before and, when adopting any type of decision support system or multicriteria analysis, also taking into consideration economic and environmental constraints and issues.
There are various aspects favoring and limiting the adoption of surface irrigation. Favorable aspects include the simplicity of its adoption at farm in flat lands with low infiltration rates, namely when water conveyance and distribution are performed with canal and/or low-pressure pipe systems, low capital investment, and low energy consumption. Most significant limitations include high soil infiltration and high variability of infiltration throughout the field, land leveling requirements, need for control of a constant inflow rate, difficulties in matching irrigation time duration with soil water deficit at time of irrigation, and difficult access to equipment for mechanized and automated water application and distribution. The modernization of surface irrigation systems and design models, as well as models and tools usable to support surface irrigation management, have significantly impacted water use and productivity, and thus competitiveness of surface irrigation.
Growing a cover crop between main crops imitates natural ecosystems where the soil is continuously covered with vegetation. This is an important management practice in preserving soil nutrient resources and reducing nitrogen (N) losses to waters. Cover crops also provide other functions that are important for the resilience and long-term stability of cropping systems, such as reduced erosion, increased soil fertility, carbon sequestration, increased soil phosphorus (P) availability, and suppression of weeds and pathogens.
Much is known about how to use cover crops to reduce N leaching, for climates where there is a water surplus outside the growing season. Non-legume cover crops reduce N leaching by 20%–80% and legumes reduce it by, on average, 23%. There are both synergies and possible conflicts between different environmental and production aspects that should be considered when developing efficient and multifunctional cover crop systems, but contradictions about different functions provided by cover crops can sometimes be overcome with site-specific adaptation of measures. One example is cover crop effects on P losses. Cover crops reduce losses of total P, but extract soil P to available forms and may increase losses of dissolved P. How to use this effect to increase soil P availability on subtropical soils needs further studies. Knowledge and examples of how to maximize the positive effects of cover crops on cropping systems are improving, thereby increasing the sustainability of agriculture. One example is combined weed suppression in order to reduce dependence on herbicides or intensive mechanical treatment.
Kimberly M. Carlson and Rachael D. Garrett
Oil crops play a critical role in global food and energy systems. Since these crops have high oil content, they provide cooking oils for human consumption, biofuels for energy, feed for animals, and ingredients in beauty products and industrial processes. In 2014, oil crops occupied about 20% of crop harvested area worldwide. While small-scale oil crop production for subsistence or local consumption continues in certain regions, global demand for these versatile crops has led to substantial expansion of oil crop agriculture destined for export or urban markets. This expansion and subsequent cultivation has diverse effects on the environment, including loss of forests, savannas, and grasslands, greenhouse gas emissions, regional climate change, biodiversity decline, fire, and altered water quality and hydrology. Oil palm in Southeast Asia and soybean in South America have been identified as major proximate causes of tropical deforestation and environmental degradation. Stringent conservation policies and yield increases are thought to be critical to reducing rates of soybean and oil palm expansion into natural ecosystems. However, the higher profits that often accompany greater yields may encourage further expansion, while policies that restrict oil crop expansion in one region may generate secondary “spillover” effects on other crops and regions. Due to these complex feedbacks, ensuring a sustainable supply of oil crop products to meet global demand remains a major challenge for agricultural companies, farmers, governments, and civil society.
Deborah L. Nichols
The Basin of Mexico is a key world region for understanding agricultural intensification and the development of ancient and historic cities and states. Archaeologists working in the region have had a long-standing interest in understanding the dynamics of interactions between society and environment and their research has been at the forefront of advances in both method and theory. The Basin of Mexico was the geopolitical core of the Aztec empire, the largest state in the history of Mesoamerica. Its growth was sustained by a complex economy that has been the subject of much research.
Two themes underlie a broad interest in the pre-Hispanic agriculture of the Basin of Mexico. First, how with a Neolithic technology did the Aztecs and their predecessors sustain the growth of large cites, dense rural populations, and the largest state system in the history of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica? Second, what is the relationship of agricultural intensification and urbanization and state formation? Mesoamerica is the only world region where primary civilizations developed that lacked domestic herbivores for either food or transportation. Their farming depended entirely on human labor and hand tools but sustained large cities, dense populations, and complex social institutions. Intensive agriculture began early and was promoted by risk, ecological diversity, and social differentiation, and included irrigation, terracing, and drained fields (chinampas). Most farming was managed by smallholder households and local communities, which encouraged corporate forms of governance and collective action. Environmental impacts included erosion and deposition, but were limited compared with the degradation that took place in the colonial period.
Alexander N. Hristov
Agriculture is a significant source of methane, contributing about 12% of the global anthropogenic methane emissions. Major sources of methane from agricultural activities are fermentation in the reticulo-rumen of ruminant animals (i.e., enteric methane), fermentation in animal manure, and rice cultivation. Enteric methane is the largest agricultural source of methane and is mainly controlled by feed dry matter intake and composition of the animal diet (i.e., fiber, starch, lipids). Processes that lead to generation of methane from animal manure are similar to those taking place in the reticulo-rumen. Methane emissions from manure, however, are greatly influenced by factors such as manure management system and ambient temperature. Systems that handle manure as a liquid generate much more methane than systems in which manure is handled as a solid. Low ambient temperatures drastically decrease methane emissions from manure. Once applied to soil, animal manure does not generate significant amounts of methane. Globally, methane emissions from rice cultivation represent about 10% of the total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. In the rice plant, methane dissolves in the soil water surrounding the roots, diffuses into the cell-wall water of the root cells, and is eventually released through the micropores in the leaves. Various strategies have been explored to mitigate agricultural methane emissions. Animal nutrition, including balancing dietary nutrients and replacement of fiber with starch or lipids; alternative sinks for hydrogen; manipulation of ruminal fermentation; and direct inhibition of methanogenesis have been shown to effectively decrease enteric methane emissions. Manure management solutions include solid-liquid separation, manure covers, flaring of generated methane, acidification and cooling of manure, and decreasing manure storage time before soil application. There are also effective mitigation strategies for rice that can be categorized broadly into selection of rice cultivars, water regime, and fertilization. Alternate wetting and drying and mid-season drainage of rice paddies have been shown to be very effective practices for mitigating methane emissions from rice production.
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.