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Thematic directory Agropolis

Download the agronomy thematic file " n° 12 (July 2010, 68 p.) 2nd Edition 2012

agronomy thematic file


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Expertise of the scientific community related to Agronomy - crops and cropping systems >Minimizing the impact of cropping on biogeochemical cycles


Agronomy Research Expertise in Montpellier and Languedoc-Roussillon (South of France)

Agronomy : crops and cropping systems

2. Minimizing the impact of cropping on biogeochemical cycles

Philippe Hinsinger
UMR Eco&Sols

Publication date : 30/05/2010

World food production has doubled over the last 50 years, thus basically compensating for the high global population growth. This so-called Green Revolution has been possible through the use of improved crop varieties and increased input applications. This trend has not taken effect in some developing countries, however, and the recent hunger riots underline the fact that agricultural production is insufficient to meet the food needs of these countries.
Moreover, in recent decades, and in close connection with agricultural intensification, humans have modified ecosystems to an unprecedented extent, as highlighted by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. There have been clear benefits in terms of increasing agroecosystem productivity, but many other ecosystem services have been highly altered, especially biogeochemical cycles.
Excessive fertilizer inputs under intensive agriculture have also had negative environmental impacts. Nitrogen, which is a major plant nutrient, can pollute groundwater by vertical transport through the soil (leaching) when the soil nitrate concentration is excessive. This can also give rise to greenhouse gas emissions (nitrous oxide).
Excessive phosphorus levels in the soil can lead to surface water eutrophication following lateral transport of this mineral through erosion. In addition, the needs of a growing global population have been partially fulfilled by changes in land-use patterns, particularly through the cultivation of forests and grasslands. This results in significant loss of carbon bound in soil organic matter, thus affecting the carbon cycle and increasing the greenhouse effect via carbon dioxide emissions.

Models predict an increase in the world population of around 50% by 2050. Changes that have occurred on our planet over the last 50 years are not sustainable, so the aims of the Doubly Green Revolution must now be achieved. The challenge is to further increase agricultural production worldwide at roughly the same pace, while preserving ecosystem services, and especially by reducing the negative impacts on biogeochemical cycles and biodiversity.

Vascular plant inventory in an oil palm plantation -© J.P. Caliman Studies carried out by teams in the region are aimed at meeting the necessary challenge of ecological intensification of agroecosystems, especially in Mediterranean and tropical conditions markedly affected by global change (climate and land-use changes). This research is focused on finding more efficient genotypes and inputs, developing innovative crop management sequences and cropping systems capable of achieving higher and more stable agricultural production, to cope with climate change and hazards. These practices include the use of multispecies stands (agroforestry, intercropping, etc.), or techniques such as direct seeding mulch-based cropping systems that benefit from the functional complementarity of different plant species.
Numerous studies also concern the management of organic matter dynamics, in association with plant cover, microbial communities and soil fauna. In the periurban agriculture setting, recycling of diversified organic matter resources, including wastes and residual waste products, highlights the potential impacts of micropollutants such as metals contained in this organic matter. Research is thus aimed at assessing the agricultural performances and environmental impacts of studied cropping systems and techniques.

Vascular plant inventory in an oil palm plantation -© J.P. Caliman


Agronomy research expertise

  • Research projects
  • Research units and teams involved

Comprehensive environmental assessment of agricultural and food products–a case study of fruit and vegetables

Tomatoes in La Réunion - © CIRAD

Environmental impacts of human societies are mainly associated with the food function. Understanding and, if possible, quantifying relationships between modes of production and food consumption and their environmental impacts (climate change, ecotoxicity, eutrophication, water use, etc.) are essential for making the necessary changes. Streamlined comprehensive (...)

Rhizosphere–a suitable scale for assessing the phytoavailability of trace elements?

In situ sampled (1.5-4 mm thick) durum wheat plant with soil attached to its roots, representing the rhizosphere. - © M.Bravin

Plants are key constituents of agroecosystems,so it is essential to study soil-plant transfers (phytoavailability) of trace elements (TE) in contaminated agricultural soils. Some TE such as arsenic (As) can accumulate in plants, with a high subsequent risk of contaminating the food chain. Other TE like copper (Cu) are mainly phytotoxic and affect crop yields. (...)

Environmental impact indicators in oil palm plantations

Example of Iphy-palm (‘pest and disease control’ indicator of the Ipalm method) indicator results.

It is essential to understand and measure the environmental impacts of agricultural production in order to optimize cropping systems and thus ensure sustainable production. This is becoming a crucial issue with respect to oil palm cropping. The growing global demand for oil palm is rapidly increasing pressure on natural resources. Since 2004, CIRAD has been developing (...)

Direct seeding mulch-based cropping systems (DMC) and carbon sequestration

Growing cover crops to restore degraded soils (Yunnan province, China). - A.Chabanne © CIRAD

Soils contain more carbon than terrestrial vegetation and the atmosphere combined. They hence represent a critical carbon sink that is closely dependent on land-use patterns. Agricultural practices contribute to the depletion of organic carbon resources. At the plot level, the decline in carbon stocks is attributed to three processes: 1) oxidation due to the (...)

Integrated modelling of cropping practices and biomass flows in agricultural production systems

View of a cattle farm in the highland region of Réunion. - © J.M. Médoc

The ‘Mafate’ approach was developed for modelling and analysing mass flows on farm and territory scales, and designed to represent farmers’ practices and test management strategies. It involves four steps: (i) acquisition of knowledge on practices, (ii) their conceptual representation (action models, typologies), (iii) construction of simulation models, (iv) (...)

Sharing major nutrient resources and uptake facilitation in intercropped cereal-legume systems: a case study on phosphorus

Intercropped peaduram wheat in a phosphate fertilization trial at INRA Toulouse- Auzeville (France).P. Hinsinger © INRA

In light of the importance of ecological intensification in agrosystems, the phosphorus issue is especially worrisome because of the finite nature of natural phosphate resources, which is the main source of phosphate fertilizers. The shortage of these fertilizers will be a major problem within a few decades, so solutions are urgently needed. Among the promising (...)

Nitrous oxide emission dependent on soil cover management in agroecosystems in Madagascar

Monitoring N2O emissions and key associated parameters in a maize-soybean DMC cropping system SCRiD research station, Madagascar).  - © E. Blanchart

In Madagascar, direct seeding mulch-based cropping systems (DMC) have been developed as an alterative to conventional systems based on soil tillage, which are unable to effectively meet the major challenges of land conservation, environmental preservation and food security. DMC systems combine no tillage and organic matter management (crop residue left on the (...)

Impact of apple orchard cropping systems on wild birds

Tree sparrows were highly sensitive to chemical pesticides and thus only found in orchards managed by organic farming strategies

Conventional crop protection strategies that rely on chemical pesticides to control pests in apple orchards have prompted the development of pesticide resistance in codling moths (apple worms), leading to an increase in the frequency of non environment-friendly pesticide treatments. Crop protection strategies differ markedly due to the adoption of alternative (...)

This example was not published on the print file in July 2010.

Managing nitrate pollution hazards in western Réunion

The population of the island of Réunion should increase by around 30% by 2030. Treatment of agroindustrial (effluents, composts, stillage, etc.) and urban (STEP sludge, waste water, mixed compost) organic waste will accelerate to overcome the structural delays. Moreover, in this island region, expansion of the urban fabric substantially hampers the development (...)

This example was not published on the print file in July 2010.

Environmental impact of composting

Turning compost windrows on the Plaine des Cafres, Réunion (photo: J. Lepetit, 2005)

Composting is an interesting technique for better spatiotemporal management of organic matter derived from livestock farming: reduction in mass and volume, enhanced soil fertility, and gradual plant nutrition. However, gas release accounts for some loss during organic matter transformation, sometimes representing as much as 50% of the composted organic matter. (...)

This example was not published on the print file in July 2010.

Nitrogen cycle and the role of shade legumes in coffee cropping systems in Costa Rica

In Central America, agroforestry systems provide an alternative to intensive high-input coffee monoculture systems which have trouble reconciling production, environment-friendliness and cost-effectiveness. Agroforestry systems have a carbon storage potential, while also reducing nitrate leaching and emissions of nitrous oxide, a major greenhouse gas. However, (...)

This example was not published on the print file in July 2010.

Research units and teams involved in "Minimizing the impact of cropping on biogeochemical cycles"

Click on the title to see the web site Member institutes and partners Scientists number Director Description
UMR LEPSE : Ecophysiology Laboratory of Plants under Environmental Stress Inra, Montpellier SupAgro 15 Bertrand Muller See the description
UMR INNOVATION : Innovation and Development in Agriculture and the Agri-Food Sector
The processes through which agriculture adapts are founded on technical and organizational innovations, on both a collective and an individual level.
Cirad, Inra, Montpellier SupAgro 50 Guy Faure See the description
UMR SYSTEM : Tropical and Mediterranean Cropping System Functioning and Management
The unit generates knowledge and tools for use in assessing, steering and developing cropping systems.
CIHEAM-IAM.M, Cirad, Inra, Montpellier SupAgro 20 Christian Gary See the description
UPR HortSys : Agroecological Functioning and Performances of Horticultural Cropping Systems
Inventing an ecologically intensive type of horticulture so as to feed people better: this is a wide-ranging mandate for the unit, whose main aim is to generate and capitalize on knowledge so as to assess and design sustainable horticultural cropping systems.
Cirad 28 Fabrice Le Bellec See the description
UPR PSCPP : Performance of Tree Crop-Based Systems Cirad 20 Eric Gohet See the description
UPR AIDA : Agro-ecology and Sustainable Intensification of Annual Crops
The Annual Cropping Systems (SCA) and Conservation Agriculture and Engineering (SIA) Research Units were merged to form this new unit as of 1 January 2014.
Cirad 56 Eric Scopel See the description
UPR AIDA : Conservation Agriculture and Engineering -->Agro-ecology and Sustainable Intensification of Annual Crops
The Annual Cropping Systems (SCA) and Conservation Agriculture and Engineering (SIA) Research Units were merged to form this new unit as of 1 January 2014.
Cirad 13 See the description
UPR GECO : Ecological Functioning and Sustainable Management of Banana and Pineapple Cropping Systems
Although export fruit crops are a major source of jobs and currency, they are now often barely viable, in agronomic, economic or social terms. These fruit monocultures often cause pollution and impoverish the environment. The markets are increasingly competitive and consumers increasingly demanding.
Cirad 22 Luc De Lapeyre de Bellaire See the description
UR PSH : Plant and Garden Cropping Systems (in French) Inra Avignon 24 Hélène Gautier See the description



See also...

1. Ensuring top quality, high quantity production2. Minimizing the impact of cropping on biogeochemical cycles3. Managing pests and optimizing pesticide use4. Preserving water resources5. Developing and disseminating innovationsResearch units, training, networks and more



Other information

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The "Laboratoires d'excellence" (LabEx) selected by the Ministry of Education and Research "Agronomy and Sustainable Development" (Agro) is led by Agropolis Fondation and focuses on Plants of agronomic interest.
Information on Agropolis web site
Agropolis Fondation website

logo ESA Société européenne d'agronomieAgropolis International managed the secretariat of the European Society for Agronomy (ESA) from 2010 to 2016
Information in the Agropolis International newsletter
ESA European Society for Agronomy website

séminaire agroécologie MontpellierAgroecology monthly cycle of seminars in Montpellier 
Several joint agricultural research units in Montpellier from CIRAD, INRA, IRD and SupAgro have initiated a monthly cycle of seminars and debates, in partnership with Agropolis International, around Agroecology : ecological intensification of cropping systems.
See the page about the Agroecology monthly cycle of seminars in Montpellier, France 



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