Food and the Future Environment

Module 5.2: Soil Nitrogen and Phosphorus: Human Management of Key Nutrients

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Module 5.2: Soil Nitrogen and Phosphorus: Human Management of Key Nutrients

Introduction

Nutrient Cycling and Nutrient Management for Soils in Food Production

In module 5.2, we present a basic account of nutrient cycling and nutrient management in food production systems. When we talk about nutrients in this context, we are referring to the nutrients that are needed to grow crops which are taken up from soils by the roots of crop plants. These include the important nutrients nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) which will form the focus of this module. We refer to N and P as "important" nutrients because they are needed in large quantities, relative to the amounts that are readily available in many soils. In agricultural and ecological terms, we say that crops and food production are especially responsive to N and P abundance: shortage of N or P causes dramatic declines in production of food, while sufficiency and abundance will raise yields, so that N and P supply have been a focus of human management to maintain food production. We will begin by talking about the way that N and P move around in cycles in all ecosystems, including the agroecosystems that are managed by humans to produce food. Human management systems in agriculture thus play a major role in altering the cycles of these nutrients in order to maintain, and in some cases increase the production and supply of food from farmland (farmed soils). This management can also negatively impact water quality in watersheds, as you saw in module four. We will also understand the way that soil organic matter (SOM) relates to these two major nutrients and soil productivity, as well as the general concept of soil depletion and soil regeneration as these relate to strategies of soil management in food production.