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XII. Sulfur Interactions with Other Elements
PLANT NUTRIENT SULFUR
perhaps by enhanced S supply. By this mechanism, plants may avoid
excess uptake. Thus, S fertilization may be a feasible technique to enhance
the quality of crops grown on polluted soils.
XIII. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Sulfur deficienciesin the tropics and subtropics have been recognized for
more than 50 years, but even today the extent and magnitude of the
problem is ill-defined. In recent years S-deficient areas of considerable
extent have been discovered and delineated, including, for example, much
of Bangladesh and South Sulawesi.
Sulfur deficiency has been slow to develop, or at least slow to be recognized, for several reasons: the atmosphere is a ubiquitous source of S; other
nutrients, especially N and P, are usually even more deficient than S; S has
been applied in irrigation water and as adjunct to other nutrients (a factor
that is rapidly decreasing in importance); SO, is more efficiently used by
plants than NO3, with which it is frequently compared; as soil organic
matter is exploited, S cycling between organic and inorganic forms is net
positive for inorganic S; adsorbed SO,, which is usually abundant at some
depth in profiles of highly weathered soils, is continually being released.
The pattern of S deficiency on a global scale leads at once to the
conclusion that areas prone to S deficiency are those that are remote from
industrial and domestic burning of fossil fuels, areas where weather patterns are controlled by air masses originating in remote regions, and areas
that have marked wet-dry seasons giving rise to savanna-type vegetation
that is burned frequently. Much of the tropics and subtropics is included in
one or more of these categories. Sulfur sources in much of the continental
tropics are meager. Long-term yields there will not exceed those that can be
supported by the incoming S supply. In some areas S yields in crops are
approximately equal to incoming S in the rainfall.
In the case of soils that do not adsorb sulfate, S supply is controlled by S
currently accruing as rainfall (wet deposition) and directly from the atmosphere (dry deposition), plus S mineralization from organic matter. Other
sources may be locally important: irrigation water, fertilizers, animal manure, and plant residues.
Adsorbed SO, and/or sparingly soluble SO,-containing minerals are
major factors in the S supply of highly weathered subtropical and tropical
soils. In most highly weathered soils, large quantities of SO, have accumulated somewhere in the profile. Usually the accumulation approaches
maximum at about a 1-m depth. Total SO,-S in some leached profiles
N. S. PASRICHA AND R. L. FOX
exceeds 16,000 kg ha-'. These forms of SO, are usually associated with
acid soils that contain hydrated oxides of iron and aluminum.
Adsorbed SO, can be extracted with phosphate solutions, presumably by
ligand exchange. This has led to the use of phosphate solutions as extractants for soil-testing purposes. Success has been mixed; the availability of
SO, so extracted should not be inferred from quantity alone. Sulfate
concentration in highly weathered soils is low, but, although many of these
soils contain copious amounts of adsorbed SO, within the root zone, and
although availability to plants of adsorbed SO, has been demonstrated,
crops may be mildly S deficient.
Sulfur concentrations in rainwater and irrigation water can be used as a
rough guide to the level of S nutrition of crops and long-term requirements
for S fertilizers. It is obvious that sustained production cannot remove
more S than has been put into the system. In remote areas of the subhumid
tropics in the Northern Hemisphere, S inputs are in the range 1 -2 kg ha-'.
Even lower values can be expected in similar situations in the Southern
Hemisphere. Estimates of S being removed in some crops (cowpea and
peanut) in subhumid tropical Africa are approximately equal to S inputs. It
is reasonable to believe that, without additional S inputs, there can be no
significant yield increases unless additional S is introduced.
The oceans are important sources of S. However, the influence of oceans
decreases rapidly with distance and elevation from the coast. Global estimates of S inputs suggest that biological sources, among which those of the
oceans are dominant, contribute more S to the atmosphere than manmade pollutants. Sea spray across the sea-land boundary contributes
relatively little to the total global system.
The list of crops for which S fertilizer has been beneficial is almost as
long as the list of cultivated crops. Some crops that formerly were not
considered to be susceptible to deficiency, rice, for example, are now
considered as being so.
Seasonal burning of vegetation during the dry season is widely practiced
in the tropics. Without doubt, burning represents a severe drain on already
meager S resources. Probably much of the S volatized is recovered in
adjacent areas of green vegetation and accounts for the relatively better S
status of these areas.
Because S accrues to plants from numerous sources, instances of acute S
deficiency are not common in the field. Even in S-deficient areas, typical
yield increases resulting from S fertilization are in the range of 5 - 20%.
Thus much evidence for S deficiency can be overlooked by an ultraconservative approach to data interpretation.
As a first approximation the fertilizer requirement should be that which
will establish and maintain 3-5 mg SO,-S liter-' in solution. For me-
PLANT NUTRIENT SULFUR
dium-textured soils that contain little adsorbed S, this amounts to approximately 10- 15 mg SO,-S kg-' on a dry soil basis. For soils in which
adsorbed SO, controls SO, concentrations in soil solutions, a rational
approach to predicting whether S fertilizer is required, and how much, can
be based on sorption curves. The approximate fertilizer requirement is that
which will establish a level of SO, in solution appropriate for the crop being
Most soil testing for advisory purposes uses turbidimetric methods for
SO, analysis. Most of these procedures are not satisfactory for extracts of
highly weathered soils. Some substances inhibit BaSO, precipitate formation in extracts of such soils. Many of the data on SO, in tropical and
subtropical soils are probably underestimates. A more reliable, although
more complicated, method has been developed.
Although SO, concentration in rainfall can be used as a rough guide to
the adequacy of sulfur supply, it should not be taken at face value. Wet
deposition of S is augmented by dry deposition as rainwater passes through
plant canopies, plant residues, and into soils, and it may be concentrated
further in the soil by surface evaporation.
Sulfur contents of plants increase with increasing concentrations of S in
soil solutions. For many crop species maximum yield requires approximately 0.2% S in leaves. Although crop yield and plant composition are
sensitive to the level of S supply, foliar diagnosis of the S status has been
little used in the tropics and subtropics. For survey work foliar analysis is
probably superior to soil analysis, and seed analysis has advantages over
both. Best results require that all appropriate tools be used. This is especially true for evaluating the S status of crops in the tropics, where, in many
areas, background information is lacking.
Care must be exercised in selecting tissues for foliar analysis. Because S is
one of the less mobile nutrients, it may accumulate in old tissues even
though young tissues are deficient.
Deficiency symptoms, if they are expressed at all, can be confused with
symptoms of other nutrient deficiencies. Because S is relatively immobile
in plants, upper leaves are first to show symptoms of deficiency-just the
reverse of N. However, S-deficient plants are often more distinctly yellow
than are N-deficient plants. An interveinal chlorosis develops in maize
leaves that is similar to Zn or Fe deficiency.
The external requirements for SO,-S in soil solutions is in the range of
3-5 mg S liter-' for some important crops of the tropics and subtropics;
however, yields of approximately 80% of the maximum attainable yield
may be obtained with as little as 1 mg liter-'.
A need for special attention to S in the tropics and subtropics arises from
the importance of S for human nutrition. The essential S-containing
N. S. PASRICHA AND R. L. FOX
amino acids of foods are of particular concern. Their concentration in
plant products can be enhanced by appropriate use of S fertilizers.
Finally, a word about the environmental impact of anthropogenic S in
the atmosphere on S as a plant nutrient. On a global scale, excess S appears
as local problems. In the subtropics, and especially in the tropics, levels of S
from all sources are below those that are optimum for plant nutrition.
From this perspective, burning low-sulfur fuel to avoid contaminating vast
areas is nonsense.
The senior author is grateful to Dr.M. S. Bajwa, Professor and Head, Department of Soils,
Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana for providing facilities. Special thanks are due to
Mr.Subhash Chander Gossain for typing the manuscript.
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