John W. Doran and C. William Zanner

The ancient Greeks realized that the thin layer of soil on Earth’s surface was one of four basic elements of life. “Many ancient religions recognized the importance of soils, and their customs evolved into a spiritual attachment to the life-giving earth,” wrote Daniel Yaalon in Nature (v. 407, p. 301). “But, surprisingly, ancient and classical scholars did not study the soil. Early scientists also ignored it.”

Paraphrasing Leonardo da Vinci, Yaalon asked: “Why do we know more about distant celestial objects than we do about the ground beneath our feet?” Even today, technology can be a celestial mirage, providing a false sense of security that obscures the basic needs of humanity and Earth.

Population growth, a widening gap between the rich and poor, environmental degradation, and a re-evaluation of energy use and alternatives will shape life in the 21st century. We will be challenged to increase food supplies for a population one-and-a-half to two times its current size. But as agricultural systems grow to meet the demands of more people, increased pressure will be placed on our natural resources: competition for land, water and energy resources from both urban and industrial sectors becomes more acute, the available land base remains static or shrinks, and increased food production threatens further degradation of natural and nonrenewable resources.

There are many legitimate and conflicting issues at play. Farmers require land, water and energy to produce food and fiber. Their needs must be balanced against competing demands for municipal development, military lands, wildlife habitat, recreational space, and protection of historical and cultural landmarks. Affecting all these groups is the overarching need to ensure food safety and quality and to ensure viable economies for both rural and urban communities.

We must address these conflicting and ever-changing conditions carefully, adapting technology to benefit human and natural resources rather than manipulating those resources to satisfy technology. Our approaches are likely to rely less on nonrenewable, petrochemical-based resources and more on renewable biological resources from the sun to meet our food, fiber and energy demands. Better coordination with natural processes and biological resources to fulfill these needs will require changes in lifestyle and consumption patterns.

The solution lies in protecting our ecosystems so that they can function on our behalf. Soils are the primary interface with the environment, influencing the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink and stability of the climate on which we depend. As such, the health of soil and other natural resources becomes a primary indicator as to the sustainability of our land-management practices and a major determinant of environmental stability.

Meeting basic human needs while preserving the life-support systems of Earth is the core of sustainable development. As presented by Kates and others (Science, v. 292, 2001, p. 641-642), a new field of "sustainability science" is emerging that seeks to understand the fundamental character of interactions between nature and society. Sustainability science differs somewhat from science as it is now known; it integrates the effects of key processes across a range of spatial scales that encompass both economic globalization and local farming practices.

Soil science has accomplished much, providing us with a thorough understanding of the physical, chemical and biological properties and processes of soils; developing management practices to produce a bountiful food supply; and determining the role of soils in regulating environmental quality. These are exciting times for soil and earth scientists. Never before have we had such technologically advanced tools for addressing the needs of humanity and Earth. Global Information Systems and Global Positioning Systems, for example, now give us soils databases and digital data to address a host of natural resource questions.

The increasingly complex needs of humanity and the challenges they present for sustaining Earth and its people will require unique approaches by soil and earth scientists. Greater emphasis will be needed to link holistic interdisciplinary analysis of problem areas to traditional reductionistic (each discipline examining one part of a larger whole) disciplinary research. This will ensure optimal use of research resources and the transfer of scientific technology into sustainable production systems in harmony with nature.

The Soil Science Society of America must continue to communicate the message that soils are vital to sustaining human welfare and assuring future environmental stability and agricultural productivity. To maintain and ensure the quality of life for future generations, we must identify land-management practices that balance growing needs for food and fiber against protection of natural and environmental resources. We must also enhance research and education programs that foster interdisciplinary efforts to translate science into practices that land managers can embrace to sustain both themselves and the soils and environments on which we all depend. In pursuing this goal, it will always be important to make clear to both urban and rural sectors of society that appropriate soil and land management is the key to providing adequate food and fiber for all people. Agriculture can also be a solution to environmental degradation rather than its cause.

Doran is President-Elect of the Soil Science Society of America and is a USDA-ARS soil scientist with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. E-mail: jdoran1@unl.edu

Zanner is a soil geomorphologist at the School of Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Nebraska. E-mail:

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