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IV. The Issue of Sustainability

IV. The Issue of Sustainability

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AGROECOSYSTEMS SUSTAINABLE IN SEMIARID REGIONS?



199



Francis and Youngberg (1990) stated that sustainable agriculture is a philosophy based on human goals and on understanding the long-term impact of human

activities on the environment and on other species. Use of this philosophy guides

our application of prior experience and the latest scientific advances to create integrated, resource-conserving, equitable farming systems. These systems reduce

environmental degradation, maintain agricultural productivity, promote economic viability in both the short and long term, and maintain stable rural communities

and quality of life. Despite the appeal of the philosophy for sustainability, there is

often controversy about how best to achieve it. It is not known what methods and

systems in diverse locations will really lead to sustainability, and this lack of

knowledge often leads to conflict.

Rodale ( 1988) listed seven reasons that sustainability has risen to importance

on the farm policy agenda. The first is that there is currently enough food in the

world. Surpluses and their timely distribution at an affordable price are more of

a problem than shortages per se. Although many people are going hungry, it is

not because of the inability to produce. Some policymakers are, however, wondering if this level of production can be sustained. The second reason is that nonrenewable resources are vitally important to the operation of the conventional

system of agriculture in the United States and most other developed countries.

Without adequate and low-cost supplies of oil, gas, phosphate rock, and other

similar resources, U.S. agriculture would not be able to turn out large amounts

of low-cost food and fiber. Third, high levels of production are having negative

impacts on some systems. Soil erosion, degradation, and deforestation are widespread. This is particularly true in some developing countries where millions of

people are literally trading soil for food. Even in the U.S. corn belt, there are approximately 2 tons of soil lost for every ton of corn produced and the loss ratio

is even greater in wheat-producing areas (Larson et al., 1981). The fourth reason is that pollution problems can be traced to agriculture. Increasingly, residues

of fertilizers and pesticides are being found in surface and underground water

supplies. Fifth, world population continues to grow-in some places very rapidly. Although there is enough food in total today, there will be a much larger population to feed and clothe in future years. Sixth, society will possibly need agricultural production for energy and chemical feedstocks as well as for food. As

fossil fuel reserves become more expensive, agriculture may have to meet new

needs. Lastly, Rodale listed the concern for the family farm. He questioned

whether the good life in rural areas can be sustained without a vibrant family

farm sector.

Sustainability clearly involves technical, economic, and social conditions. All

three conditions are highly important and interrelated. It may be entirely possible

to have an agroecosystem that is technically sustainable that is neither economically feasible nor socially acceptable. Herein, however, we will deal primarily with

sustainability in regard to how agricultural practices and systems affect the sustainability of the soil resource base.



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B. A. STEWART AND C. A. ROBINSON



A. AGROECOSYSTEM

PROCESSES

Whenever a natural ecosystem is transformed into an agroecosystem for the purpose of food and fiber production, there are several soil degradative processes set

into motion. Hornick and Parr (1987) reported that most agroecosystems have

degradation processes and conservation practices occurring simultaneously. The

relation of soil productivity to soil degradation processes and soil conservation

practices is illustrated in Fig. 2. As soil degradation processes proceed and intensify, there is a concomitant decrease in soil productivity and sustainability.Conversely, soil conservation and reclamation practices tend to increase soil productivity and sustainability. Therefore, the productivity level of an agroecosystem at

any time is a result of the interaction of degradation processes and conservationheclamation practices, some of which are shown in Fig. 2. In natural ecosystems, sustainability is achieved through the efficient but delicate balance between

all necessary inputs and outputs. Failure of agroecosystems to maintain this balance will ultimately lead to systems that cannot be sustained.

The relation shown in Fig. 2 applies to all agroecosystems, although the importance of specific processes will vary substantially between agroecosystems.Also,

the processes included in Fig. 2 are not all inclusive but are some of the most important and will be used for discussion. It is also important to recognize that some

of the processes that are generally considered positive can, in some cases, result in

soil degradation. For example, the use of organic wastes increases soil organic matter, improves soil structure, enhances soil water storage, and reduces erosion. In

some circumstances, however, use of organic wastes results in accumulations of

toxicants or nutrient depletion caused by increased leaching. The important point

illustrated by Fig. 2 is that degradative processes and soil improvement processes

always occur simultaneously, and the net result can be positive or negative.

The negative impacts of soil degradation processes can become dominant. In

such situations,agroecosystemscannot be sustained over the long term, and in ex-



Soil Degradation



------



Pmre...



Soil Erosion

Nutrient Runofl

Waterlogging

Desertifcation

Aciditicalion

Compaction

Crusting

Or anic Matter Loss

Salnization

Nutrient Depletion by Leaching

Toxicant Accumulation



1



\



Productivity



1

I



soil Conservation

Practices

ConservationTillage

Crop Rotations

Imprwed Drainage

Resldue Management

Water Conservation

Terracing

Contour Farming

Chemical Fertilizers

Organic Fertilizers

Improved Nutrient Cycling

Improved System to Match Soil,

Climate and Cultivars



Figure 2 Relation of soil productivity to soil degradation processes and soil conservation practices (modified from Hornick and Pam,1987).



AGROECOSYSTEMS SUSTAINABLE IN SEMIARID REGIONS? 201

treme cases soil productivity can be reduced to zero. On the other hand, soil conservation practices rarely improve the productivity of cropland beyond the initial

levels experienced when virgin land is cultivated. However, soil restoration practices, to be economically feasible and fonvard-looking, must, of necessity, be focused on improving the soil productivity beyond the initial level experienced after cultivation. Examples of such practices include adding fertilizers in areas where

essential plant nutrients are deficient and installing water conservation practices to

significantly reduce runoff. The most notable increases in dryland productivity

generally occur when irrigation practices are established or when salt-affected

areas are reclaimed.



B. CLIMATIC

EFFECT

The concepts illustrated in Fig. 2 apply to all climates and all levels of inputs.

In every case, a truly sustainable agroecosystem results when the effects of conservation practices equal or exceed the effects of the soil degradation processes.

Climate is often the most critical factor determining the sustainability of an agroecosystem. Stewart er al. (1991) presented a generalized view, shown in Fig. 3, of

the effect of varying temperature and moisture regimes on the difficulty of achieving sustainability in an agroecosystem. As temperatures increase and the amounts

of precipitation decrease, the development of sustainable cropping systems becomes more difficult. The reasons for these effects are readily apparent when the

processes and practices presented in Fig. 2 are analyzed.

The most serious degradation processes in semiarid regions are erosion and loss

of soil organic matter. As temperatures increase, organic matter decline, particularly in frequently tilled soils, is greatly accelerated. The potential for wind erosion especially and also water erosion generally increases in warmer areas. These

same degradation processes are also accelerated as the moisture regimes become

more arid because, initially, there is a lower inherent organic matter level and less

natural vegetation to prevent erosion.

Not only do the soil degradation processes accelerate under hot and arid climatic

regimes, but the benefits that can be derived from soil conservation practices in

these regimes are fewer than those in the cooler and wetter areas. For example, the

most important soil conservation practices to alleviate organic matter loss and control soil erosion usually involve crop residues, but the availability of crop residues

decreases sharply in semiarid regions. Consequently, the negative processes

shown in Fig. 2 can easily become much greater than the positive benefits and

make the agroecosystem unsustainable.

The relations presented in Fig. 3 do not apply to all climatic regimes. Soil degradation processes also accelerate under very high precipitation regimes due primarily to water erosion, nutrient depletion by leaching, and acidification. Cold

conditions severely limit the choice of cropping systems and can also result in



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B. A. STEWARTAND C. A. ROBINSON



Figure 3 Generalized representation of the effects of temperature and precipitation on the difficulty of developing sustainable agroecosystems in semiarid regions (from Stewart e r a / . , 1991).



waterlogging. The relations represented in Fig. 3 should be restricted to moving

from the more favored environments toward semiarid and arid regions.



C. SOILEFFECT

The soil is also an important factor to consider in the development of sustainable agroecosystems.The generalized representation shown in Fig. 3 holds for all

soils, but the potential rate and extent of soil quality decline depend on soil type.

Pierce et al. (1983) developed a productivity index (PI) for assessing the effect of

erosion on soil productivity. Briefly, the PI assumes that soil is a major determinant of crop yield because of the environment it provides for root growth. They

evaluated the relative productive potential of soil by calculating a PI based on the

available water capacity, resistance to root growth and development (bulk density), and adequacy of pH to a depth of 100 cm.

A study by the National Research Council (1993) stated that the quality of a soil

depends on attributes such as the soil’s texture, depth, permeability, biological activity, capacity to store water and nutrients, and the amount of soil organic matter.

The report stressed that soils are living, dynamic systems that are the interface be-



AGROECOSYSTEMS SUSTAINABLE IN SEMIARID REGIONS? 203

tween agriculture and the environment. High-quality soils promote the growth of

crops and make farming systems more productive. High-quality soils also prevent

water pollution by resisting erosion, absorbing and partitioning rainfall, and degrading or immobilizing agricultural chemicals, wastes, or other potential pollutants.

Soil degradation is an outcome of human activities that deplete soil and the interaction of these activities with natural environments. La1 and Stewart (1990a)

stated that the three principal types of soil degradation are physical, chemical, and

biological. Each type is made up of different processes, as illustrated in Fig. 4.

Physical degradation leads to a deterioration of soil properties that can have a serious impact on water infiltration and plant growth. Wind and water erosion are

generally the dominant physical degradation processes, but compaction is also a

widespread concern in places where heavy machinery is commonly used. Hardsetting of a cultivated soil is also a process of compaction, but it results from wetting structurally weak or unstable soil rather than from the application of an external load. Laterization is the desiccation and hardening of exposed plinthitic

material (material consisting of clay and quartz with other diluents; it is rich in

sesquioxides, poor in humus, and highly weathered).

Chemical degradation processes can lead to a rapid decline in soil quality. Nutrient depletion, acidification, and salinization are common soil degradation

processes that have serious impacts on crop production. Chemical degradation is

also caused by the buildup of toxic chemicals resulting from human activities.

Biological degradation includes reductions in organic matter content, declines

in the amount of carbon from biomass, and decreases in the activity and diversity

of soil fauna. Biological degradation is perhaps the most serious form of soil degradation because it affects the life of the soil and because organic matter significantly

affects the physical and chemical properties of soils. Biological degradation can

also be caused by indiscriminate and excessive use of chemicals and soil pollutants. Biological degradation is also generally more serious in many semiarid regions, particularly in the tropics and subtropics, because of the prevailing high soil

and air temperatures. Tillage also stimulates biological degradation because it increases the exposure of organic matter to decomposition processes.



D. SOCIOECONOMIC

EFFECT

Soil degradation is a complex phenomenon driven by strong interactions among

socioeconomic and biophysical factors. These interactions, as perceived by La1

and Stewart (1990b), are illustrated in Fig. 5. Soil degradation is fueled worldwide

by increasing human populations, fragile economies, and misguided farm policies.

There is also often a conflict between short-term benefits and long-term consequences. This conflict is perhaps the most serious problem that must be addressed

if truly sustainable agroecosystems are to be achieved.



2 04



B. A. STEWART AND C. A. ROBINSON

SOIL DEGRADATION



~



m

17, 71 Ti

~



Compaction Laterization Erosion and

Fertility

and

desertification depletion

hard setting



I



Wind

erosion



Water

erosion



Elemental

imbalance



I



Decline in

Soil organic

matter



Reduction in

macro and

micro fauna



Acidifi- Sodication Toxic

cation

compounds



Figure 4 Qpes and processes of soil degradation (from La1 and Stewart, 1990a).



Soil degradation in semiarid regions can lead to desertification. Desertification,

until recently, was generally considered to be primarily the result of prolonged

drought. However, it has become apparent in recent years that human misuse of land

is perhaps the basic factor, and drought is only an exacerbating factor (Dregne,

1989). In a paper prepared for the World Bank, Newcombe (1984) described the

stages of land degradation that occur when natural forests are cleared and plowed

as people seek new agricultural land. Nutrient cycling is drastically altered, and

soil fertility declines following clearing. In the first stage, wood supplies remain

plentiful, and gradual erosion is largely unnoticed. As the population increases,

demand for wood increases for both construction and fuel, initiating a self-feeding cycle of degradation involving cutting wood from remnant forests to generate

income, burning crop residues and dung for household fuel, reduced soil fertility,

degraded soil structure due to residue and dung removal, and increased vulnerability to wind and water erosion. Eventually, dung and crop residues turn up in

markets where only wood was previously sold. As a result of declining organic

matter, the cropland becomes less productive, and crop yields prove barely sufficient even for subsistence. Eventually, dung becomes the main fuel sources in villages, and rural families use crop residues for cooking and for feeding livestock,

which can no longer be supported by grazing land. In the final stage of degradation, crop failures become common even in normal seasons because topsoil and

organic matter depletion have lowered the soil water-holding capacity. As a result,

both food and fuel prices rise rapidly. Newcombe (1984) believes a critical point

occurs in subsistence economies when more trees are cut for fuel than to make way

for farmland. This is an excellent example of how short-term benefits can lead to



AGROECOSYSTEMS SUSTAINABLE IN SEMIARID REGIONS? 205

long-term disasters. This results in people moving to even more marginal areas. In

essence, droughts seldom move to the people; rather, the people move to the

droughts.



V. TECHNOLOGIES FOR INCREASING

PLANT-AVAILABLE WATER

Stewart and Burnett (1987) listed three components necessary for successful

agroecosystems in dryland areas. These are (i) retaining the precipitation on the

land, (ii) reducing evaporation, and (iii) utilizing crops that have drought tolerance

and that fit the rainfall patterns. Although these components have been known for



*



4-b



Evapotranspiration



SOIL DEGRADATION 4-b



. Population density

. Land: people ratio

*



Land tenure systems



Figure 5 Interdependence of soil degradation on biological and socioeconomic factors (from La1

and Stewart, 1990b).



2 06



B. A. STEWART AND C. A. ROBINSON



centuries, new technologies and strategies have been developed that increase crop

production in water-deficient areas. Some of these technologies and the principles

on which they are based are presented in the following sections.



A. LENGTHENING

THE FALLOW

PERIOD

One of the oldest, and most controversial, technologies for increasing plantavailable water is lengthening the fallow period. This is generally called summer

fallow, defined as a practice wherein no crop is grown and all plant growth is controlled by cultivation or chemicals during a season when a crop might normally be

grown. Proponents have emphasized the water-conserving, weed-controlling, and

crop yield-stabilizing virtues, whereas critics have emphasized the inefficiency in

soil water storage and the wind and water erosion and declining organic matter

problems associated with fallow. Fallow efficiency is defined as the percentage of

precipitation occurring during the fallow period that is stored in the soil profile at

the end of the fallow period. Historically, fallow efficiencies have been in the range

of 15-20%. The remainder of the precipitation is lost as runoff and evaporation

and, on some soils, as drainage below the root zone. Stewart et al. (1 994) summarized long-term data from different cropping systems at Bushland, Texas, to illustrate the effect that lengthening the fallow period has on increasing soil water

storage (Table I). The cropping systems were (i) continuous wheat, where winter

wheat is seeded each year in October and harvested in late June or early July;

(ii) wheat-sorghum-fallow (two crops in 3 years), where the land is fallowed for

approximately 11 months following wheat harvest and the land is then seeded to

grain sorghum in June and harvested in November and then fallowed for 1 1 months

until the following October when the land is again seeded to winter wheat; and

(iii) wheat-fallow (one crop in 2 years), where the land is fallowed for approximately 16 months from wheat harvest in July to October of the following year

when wheat is seeded again. The amount of precipitation lost during the rotation

as evaporation during the nongrowing (fallow) season ranges from 36% for the

continuous wheat system to 61% for the wheat-fallow system. In the wheatfallow system, where the fallow period is 15 or 16 months, only approximately

15% of the precipitation that occurs during the fallow period is stored in the soil

for later use by a growing crop. Even under the continuous wheat system, where

the fallow period is only 3 or 4 months, the fallow efficiency is less than 20%.

However, despite the very low efficiency of water storage during fallow periods,

the wheat-fallow system is practiced widely because of the importance of sustaining crop yields under dry farming conditions. As illustrated in Fig. 1, there is

no period during the year at Bushland, Texas, when average precipitation is as

much as 50% of the potential evapotranspiration. Therefore, without a substantial

amount of stored soil water present at time of seeding, the chance of a crop fail-



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