Soil: The Foundation of Agriculture

Throughout human history, our relationship with the soil has affected our ability to cultivate crops and influenced the success of civilizations. This relationship between humans, the earth, and food sources affirms soil as the foundation of agriculture.

Human society has developed through utilization of our planet’s resources in amazingly unique, creative, and productive ways that have furthered human evolution and sustained global societies. Of these resources, soil and water have provided humans with the ability to produce food, through agriculture, for our sustenance. In exploring the link between soil and agriculture, this article will highlight 1) our transition from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies; 2) the major soil properties that contribute to fertile soils; 3) the impacts of intensive agriculture on soil degradation; and 4) the basic concepts of sustainable agriculture and soil management. These topics will be discussed to demonstrate the vital role that soils play in our agriculturally-dependent society.

Agriculture and Human Society

Human use and management of soil and water resources have shaped the development, persistence, decline, and regeneration of human civilizations that are sustained by agriculture (Harlan 1992, Hillel 1992). Soil and water are essential natural resources for our domesticated animal- and plant-based food production systems. Although of fundamental importance today, agriculture is a relatively recent human innovation that spread rapidly across the globe only 10,000 to 12,000 years ago (Diamond 1999, Montgomery 2007, Price & Gebauer 1995, Smith 1995), during the Agricultural Revolution. This short, yet highly significant period of time, represents less than 0.3 % of the more than four million years of human evolution as bipedal hominids and ultimately Homo sapiens. In agriculturally-based societies during the last ten millennia, humans have developed complex, urban civilizations that have cycled through periods of increasing complexity, awe-inspiring intellectual achievement, persistence for millennia, and, in some instances, perplexing decline (Trigger 2003). In many cases, stressed, declining civilizations adapted, or reemerged, into new or similar complex cultures (Schwartz & Nichols 2006). Through such fluctuations, we have remained dependent on a relatively small number of crop and animal species for food, and on integrated soil-water systems that are essential for their production. There is no doubt that our modern human society has developed to the point that we cannot exist without agriculture.

It is clear that agriculture sustains and defines our modern lives, but it is often disruptive of natural ecosystems. This is especially true for plant communities, animal populations, soil systems, and water resources. Understanding, evaluating, and balancing detrimental and beneficial agricultural disturbances of soil and water resources are essential tasks in human efforts to sustain and improve human well-being. Such knowledge influences our emerging ethics of sustainability and responsibility to human populations and ecosystems of the future.

Although agriculture is essential for human food and the stability of complex societies, almost all of our evolution has taken place in small, mobile, kin-based social groups, such as bands and tribes (Diamond 1999, Johanson & Edgar 2006). Before we became sedentary people dependent on agriculture, we were largely dependent on wild plant and animal foods, without managing soil and water resources for food production. Our social evolution has accelerated since the Agricultural Revolution and taken place synergistically with human biological evolution, as we have become dependent on domesticated plants and animals grown purposefully in highly managed, soil-water systems.

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