Food and the Future Environment

Plant Life Histories


Plant Life Histories

Plants need light, water, nutrients, an optimal temperature range, and carbon dioxide for growth. In a natural environment, the availability of plant resources is determined by the:

  • soil fertility, soil depth, and soil drainage

  • climate: the seasonal temperature and precipitation distribution
  • competition with other plants, herbivory by other organisms, and pathogens
  • the frequency of environmental disturbances (for example from fire, floods, and herbivory).

In some environments, nutrients, light, and water, are readily available and temperatures and the length of the growing season are sufficient for most annual crops to complete their lifecycle; we will refer to these as high resource environments for crop production. High resource environments tend to have soils that are fertile, well-drained, deep, and generally level, as well as growing seasons with temperatures and precipitation that are optimal for most plant growth. In general, in environments where competition for resources among plants is low, annual plants with more rapid growth rates tend to dominate (Lambers et al, 1998). Consequently, humans tend to cultivate annual plants with high growth rates in high-resource environments.

By contrast, in low-resource environments plant growth may be limited due to soil features and/or climatic conditions. Soils may be sloped, with limited fertility, depth, and drainage; and/or the growing season may be short due to extended dry seasons and/or long winters (with temperatures at or below freezing). In natural ecosystems, resources can be limited due to competition among plants, such as in a forest or grassland where established plants limit the light, water, and nutrients for new seedlings. And in these environments where resources are limited, plants with slower growth rates and perennial life cycles tend to succeed (Lambers et al, 1998), and perennials are often the primary crops that humans cultivate in resource-limited environments.