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2: Environmental Dynamics and Drivers

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    In the second section of the course, you will begin to explore the interaction between our human food systems and natural earth systems, including soil and water resources and how those resources influence the selection of which crops a farmer grows. Soil and water are two key ingredients are critical to growing food. Module 4 explores why water is necessary to grow food, where that water comes from, either precipitation or irrigation, and the impacts that our food production system has on Earth's water resources. Module 5 focuses on the other essential resource for food systems, soil and the nutrients found in soil. In this module, you will explore how soil resources can be degraded and how soil management can help protect soils and key soil nutrients, nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P). Module 6 is an introduction to crops. You will explore how climate, including temperature and precipitation, and soil resources influence crop plant selection, how crops are classified and what other factors influence crop selection.

    At the end of this section, you'll explore each of these topics in your capstone region in Stage 2 of the capstone assignment. Your goal at this stage is to identify the water resources available in your capstone region by looking at climate maps, to identify the quality of the soil resources and soil and nutrient management practices in your capstone region, and to explore the types of crops grown in your capstone region.


    • Module 4: Food and Water
    • Module 5: Soils as a key resource for food systems
    • Module 6: Crops
    • Capstone Stage 2

    Section Goals

    Upon completion of Section 2 students will be able to:

    • Identify soil nutrients and soil function as key natural system factor in food production.
    • Distinguish between pre-existing aspects of biogeochemical cycling and human-induced processes that affect biogeochemical cycling.
    • Attribute different soil fertility outcomes in food systems to the coupled natural and human factors and feedbacks that produce them.
    • Analyze the relationship between climate, availability of water resources, irrigation, and agricultural food production.
    • Examine their water footprints and the virtual water embedded in agricultural food products.
    • Summarize the major impacts of agriculture on both quality and quantity of water resources.
    • Describe key features of categories of crop plants and how they are adapted to environmental and ecological factors.
    • Explain how soil and climatic features determine what crops can be produced in a location, and how humans may alter an environment for crop production.
    • Explain how both environmental and socio-economic factors contribute to crop plant selection (coupled human-nature systems).
    • Outline the basic science behind human-induced climate change and the contribution from agriculture.
    • Compare various potential impacts of climate change on our global and local food systems.
    • Select strategies that enhance the resilience of food systems in the face of a changing climate.

    Section Objectives

    In order to reach these goals, we have established the following learning objectives for student learning. Upon completion of the modules within Section 2, you will be able to:

    • Describe the basic properties of soil that distinguish it from mere "dirt".
    • Explain how soil serves as a medium for plant growth.
    • Explain how the five soil-forming factors interact to produce soils.
    • Explain the term "biogeochemical cycling".
    • Explain common limiting factors to plant growth that limit food production around the world.
    • Explain how nutrient and carbon depletion from soils and soil erosion create conditions of low food productivity.
    • Assess how farming practices affect soil fertility.
    • Analyze modern fertilizer use as the emergence of a strong human system impact on and participation in natural biogeochemical cycling that addresses nutrient limitation but can create nutrient pollution.
    • Analyze how natural/human system feedbacks operate to limit the actions of poorer food producers around the world.
    • Incorporate sustainability challenges related to soil nutrient management into an analysis of food systems.
    • Explain the relationships between evapotranspiration (ET), climate, and crop consumptive use.
    • Relate the spatial distribution of precipitation and ET rates to where food can be grown with and without irrigation.
    • Estimate their water consumption in the food they eat using the concepts of virtual water and water footprints.
    • Attribute major water pollutants to appropriate agricultural sources.
    • Describe the major impacts of agricultural diversions on the Colorado River.
    • Relate nutrient loading from fertilizer use to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
    • Define annual and perennial crops and list some examples of annual and perennial crops.
    • Discuss why annual or perennial crops are cultivated in high resource or resource-limited environments.
    • Explain some ways that farmers alter the environment to produce annual or perennial crops.
    • Explain some of the advantages and disadvantages of producing annual and perennial crops.
    • Name some major crop plant families.
    • Explain the nutrient significance of legumes.
    • Describe some ways that plants are classified into types including plant families, temperature adaptation, and photosynthetic pathways.
    • Describe key plant physiological processes and how climate change may influence crop plant growth and yield.
    • Describe some of the major agricultural crops and the agroecological (both ecological and socioeconomic) factors that influence what crops farmers produce.
    • Describe examples of the conflict of growing food crops for food versus biofuel.
    • Identify climate variables that affect agriculture.
    • Explain possible climate change impacts on crops.
    • Summarize the mechanisms of human-induced climate change.
    • Explain the role of food systems in contributing to climate change.
    • Discuss how climate change impacts food production and yield.
    • Evaluate how farmers adapt to climate change.
    • Differentiate impacts of climate change on climate variables in different regions.

    2: Environmental Dynamics and Drivers is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Karsten & Steven Vanek via source content that was edited to conform to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.