, Volume 9, Issue 8, pp 1364–1382 | Cite as

The Nature and Longevity of Agricultural Impacts on Soil Carbon and Nutrients: A Review

  • Kendra McLauchlan


Since the domestication of plant and animal species around 10,000 years ago, cultivation and animal husbandry have been major components of global change. Agricultural activities such as tillage, fertilization, and biomass alteration lead to fundamental changes in the pools and fluxes of carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P) that originally existed in native ecosystems. Land is often taken out of agricultural production for economic, social, or biological reasons, and the ability to predict the biogeochemical trajectory of this land is important to our understanding of ecosystem development and our projections of food security for the future. Tillage generally decreases soil organic matter (SOM) due to erosion and disruption of the physical, biochemical, and chemical mechanisms of SOM stabilization, but SOM can generally reaccumulate after the cessation of cultivation. The use of organic amendments causes increases in SOM on agricultural fields that can last for centuries to millennia after the termination of applications, although the locations that provide the organic amendments are concurrently depleted. The legacy of agriculture is therefore highly variable on decadal to millennial time scales and depends on the specific management practices that are followed during the agricultural period. State factors such as climate and parent material (particularly clay content and mineralogy) modify ecosystem processes such that they may be useful predictors of rates of postagricultural biogeochemical change. In addition to accurate biogeochemical budgets of postagricultural systems, ecosystem models that more explicitly incorporate mechanisms of SOM loss and formation with agricultural practices will be helpful. Developing this predictive capacity will aid in ecological restoration efforts and improve the management of modern agroecosystems as demands on agriculture become more pressing.


agriculture clay content manure nitrogen persistence phosphorus reversibility soil organic carbon sustainability tillage 



I appreciate the financial support of both the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Luce Foundation during preparation of the manuscript. Many thanks to Jon Sandor, Tim Crews, Joe Craine, Ross Virginia, and the two anonymous reviewers for thorough and constructive reviews of earlier versions of the manuscript. I am also grateful for helpful discussions with Tony Hartshorn and technical assistance from Joe Craine and Andrew Elmore.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Environmental Studies ProgramDartmouth CollegeHanoverUSA

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