Soil management practices for sustainable agro-ecosystems

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Courtesy of Springer

A doubling of the global food demand projected for the next 50 years poses a huge challenge for the sustainability of both food production and global and local environments. Today’s agricultural technologies may be increasing productivity to meet world food demand, but they may also be threatening agricultural ecosystems. For the global environment, agricultural systems provide both sources and sinks of greenhouse gases (GHGs), which include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). This paper addresses the importance of soil organic carbon (SOC) for agro-ecosystems and GHG uptake and emission in agriculture, especially SOC changes associated with soil management. Soil management strategies have great potential to contribute to carbon sequestration, since the carbon sink capacity of the world’s agricultural and degraded soil is 50–66% of the historic carbon loss of 42–72 Pg (1 Pg=1015 g), although the actual carbon storage in cultivated soil may be smaller if climate changes lead to increasing mineralization. The importance of SOC in agricultural soil is, however, not controversial, as SOC helps to sustain soil fertility and conserve soil and water quality, and organic carbon compounds play a variety of roles in the nutrient, water, and biological cycles. No-tillage practices, cover crop management, and manure application are recommended to enhance SOC storage and to contribute to sustainable food production, which also improves soil quality. SOC sequestration could be increased at the expense of increasing the amount of non-CO2 GHG emissions; however, soil testing, synchronized fertilization techniques, and optimum water control for flooding paddy fields, among other things, can reduce these emissions. Since increasing SOC may also be able to mitigate some local environmental problems, it will be necessary to have integrated soil management practices that are compatible with increasing SOM management and controlling soil residual nutrients. Cover crops would be a critical tool for sustainable soil management because they can scavenge soil residual nitrogen and their ecological functions can be utilized to establish an optimal nitrogen cycle. In addition to developing soil management strategies for sustainable agro-ecosystems, some political and social approaches will be needed, based on a common understanding that soil and agro-ecosystems are essential for a sustainable society.

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