U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Date of this Version



Published in Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 88 (2002) 107–110.


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 global 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 and the available land base remains static or shrinks. Under current practices increased food production will greatly increase inputs into agricultural production systems, thereby vastly increasing opportunity for environmental pollution and degradation and depletion of natural and non-renewable resources (Power, 1996). To sustain agriculture and the world for future generations, we must act now to develop production systems which rely less on non-renewable, petrochemical based resources; rely more on renewable resources from the sun for our food, fiber, and energy needs; and achieve the ecological intensification needed to meet the increased future food demand (Cassman, 1999). However, better coordination with natural processes for meeting our food and energy needs will likely require some life-style change to achieve the multiple goals of economic, ecological, and environmental sustainability. The condition of our soils ultimately determines human health by serving as the major medium for food and fiber production and a primary interface with the environment, influencing the quality of air we breathe and water we drink. Thus, there is a clear linkage between soil quality and human and environmental health. As such, the health of our soil resources is a primary indicator of the sustainability of our land management practices (Acton and Gregorich, 1995).

In this special issue, summary findings of an international workshop on “Soil Health as an Indicator of Sustainable Land Management”, held June 24 and 25, 1999 at the GAIA Environmental Research and Education Center in Kifissia, Greece are presented. The objectives of this workshop were to highlight the central role of soil health in sustaining society and assuring future environmental stability and agricultural productivity and to identify critical issues and research and education needs as related to sustainable development. Oral presentations on the first day of this workshop were given by scientists and professionals from the USA, Canada, Germany, Greece, France, Moldova, Poland, Spain, and the UK.

On the second day of the workshop, participants worked together in one large group and in three small break-out groups to identify critical issues in sustainable management and to define research and education needs to address these issues. The final product was the identification of high priority research and education needs for the sustainable management of agricultural land and of the management “strategies” needed to achieve sustainability. A major challenge to us as scientists is in finding ways to translate our science into practices that people of the land can embrace to sustain both themselves and the soils and environments on which we all depend.