David E. Clay, Sharon A. Clay, Thomas DeSutter, and Cheryl Reese
Since the discovery that food security could be improved by pushing seeds into the soil and later harvesting a desirable crop, agriculture and agronomy have gone through cycles of discovery, implementation, and innovation. Discoveries have produced predicted and unpredicted impacts on the production and consumption of locally produced foods. Changes in technology, such as the development of the self-cleaning steel plow in the 18th century, provided a critical tool needed to cultivate and seed annual crops in the Great Plains of North America. However, plowing the Great Plains would not have been possible without the domestication of plants and animals and the discovery of the yoke and harness. Associated with plowing the prairies were extensive soil nutrient mining, a rapid loss of soil carbon, and increased wind and water erosion. More recently, the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and no-tillage planters has contributed to increased adoption of conservation tillage, which is less damaging to the soil. In the future, the ultimate impact of climate change on agronomic practices in the North American Great Plains is unknown. However, projected increasing temperatures and decreased rainfall in the southern Great Plains (SGP) will likely reduce agricultural productivity. Different results are likely in the northern Great Plains (NGP) where higher temperatures can lead to increased agricultural intensification, the conversion of grassland to cropland, increased wildlife fragmentation, and increased soil erosion. Precision farming, conservation, cover crops, and the creation of plants better designed to their local environment can help mitigate these effects. However, changing practices require that farmers and their advisers understand the limitations of the soils, plants, and environment, and their production systems. Failure to implement appropriate management practices can result in a rapid decline in soil productivity, diminished water quality, and reduced wildlife habitat.
Soils are the complex, dynamic, spatially diverse, living, and environmentally sensitive foundations of terrestrial ecosystems as well as human civilizations. The modern, environmental study of soil is a truly young scientific discipline that emerged only in the late 19th century from foundations in agricultural chemistry, land resource mapping, and geology. Today, little more than a century later, soil science is a rigorously interdisciplinary field with a wide range of exciting applications in agronomy, ecology, environmental policy, geology, public health, and many other environmentally relevant disciplines. Soils form slowly, in response to five inter-related factors: climate, organisms, topography, parent material, and time. Consequently, many soils are chemically, biologically, and/or geologically unique. The profound importance of soil, combined with the threats of erosion, urban development, pollution, climate change, and other factors, are now prompting soil scientists to consider the application of endangered species concepts to rare or threatened soil around the world.