Authored by L. E. Drinkwater1 and S. S. Snapp2


Agricultural intensification has greatly increased the productive capacity of agroecosystems, but has had unintended environmental consequences including degradation of soil and water resources, and alteration of biogeochemical cycles. Current nutrient management strategies aim to deliver soluble inorganic nutrients directly to crops and have uncoupled carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles in space and time. As a result, agricultural ecosystems are maintained in a state of nutrient saturation and are inherently leaky because chronic surplus additions of nitrogen and phosphorus are required to meet yield goals. Significant reductions of nutrient surpluses can only be achieved by managing a variety of intrinsic ecosystem processes at multiple scales to recouple elemental cycles. Rather than focusing solely on soluble, inorganic plant‐available pools, an ecosystem‐based approach would seek to optimize organic and mineral reservoirs with longer mean residence times that can be accessed through microbially and plant‐mediated processes. Strategic use of varied nutrient sources, including inorganic fertilizers, combined with increases in plant diversity aimed at expanding the functional roles of plants in agroecosystems will help restore desired agroecosystem functions.

To develop crops that can thrive in this environment, selection of cultivars and their associated microorganisms that are able to access a range of nutrient pools will be critical. Integrated management of biogeochemical processes that regulate the cycling of nutrients and carbon combined with increased reservoirs more readily retained in the soil will greatly reduce the need for surplus nutrient additions in agriculture.

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