Free Access
Review
Issue
Agron. Sustain. Dev.
Volume 30, Number 1, January-March 2010
Page(s) 1 - 10
DOI https://doi.org/10.1051/agro/2009055
Published online 02 February 2010

© INRA, EDP Sciences, 2010

1. INTRODUCTION

Climate change and the recent financial crisis clearly show that humans have entered an unprecedented era of fast and possibly dangerous changes. This era is the anthropocene, a term that was coined in 2000 by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen to point out that human activities now have a global impact on climate and ecosystems. Crutzen has explained, “I was at a conference where someone said something about the Holocene. I suddenly thought this was wrong. The world has changed too much. So I said: ‘No, we are in the anthropocene’. I just made up the word on the spur of the moment. Everyone was shocked. But it seems to have stuck”.

Unprecedented changes call for unprecedented adaptation. Unprecedented adaptation calls for unprecedented thinking. For instance, a major issue is that agricultural research has been for too long driven solely by the need for higher yields using monoculture, whatever the adverse ecological effects, such as food and drinking water pollution, biodiversity loss, and pest resistance. Mainstream goals such as higher yields should be challenged and rethought to take into account other factors. Those factors should not be solely defined by classical agrosciences, e.g. plant and soil sciences, but should also include all other sciences that really rule agriculture; for instance, ecological, economic, social and political sciences (De Bon et al., Bon2009; Wezel et al., Wezel2009; Fleming and Vanclay, 2009; Lamine and Bellon, Lamine2009; Lichtfouse et al., 2009a, b; Veldkamp et al., 2009). In other words, agronomy should not be reduced to a science that improves crop yields but should answer all society’s issues because agriculture is both the foundation and the future of society. Agronomists should rethink the role of agriculture in our society. For instance, studies of farming systems should also include food systems (Gliessman, 2007).

Previous works have attempted to define the core issues of the industrial agricultural society: technology without wisdom; and the tragedy of the global commons: soil, water and air (Lal, 2009a, b); artificialisation and painkiller solutions; climate change and outdated society structures; and society dependence and sustainable agriculture (Lichtfouse, Lichtfouse2009aa–c). In the book Sustainable Agriculture we have gathered 53 review articles that cover major advances in agrosciences (Lichtfouse et al., 2009a). Four recent books also report major contributions in emerging agrosciences (Lichtfouse, 2009d–g). Here, we analyse recent topical trends in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. Topical trends are assessed using three indicators: (1) most-cited articles 1999–2009, (2) topic hits on the journal website over 1999–2009, and (3) most-downloaded articles in 2009. We then briefly review selected journal articles published in 2009.

2. MOST-CITED ARTICLES 1999–2009

A first means to assess topics in the journal is to look at most-cited articles in the Journal Citation Reports. Table I shows yearly top-cited articles in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development from 1999 to 2009. The results indicate that major recent topics are transgenic plants, agroindicators, alternative crop management, beneficial microbes, and topics related to climate change such as biofuels and soil carbon. Whereas transgenic plants and biofuels are clearly emerging topics from 2007, soil carbon and climate are strikingly apparent as major topics through the whole 1999–2009 period. Soil carbon and climate are also topics of the 4 most-cited articles from 1999 to 2009. Other most-cited topics include agroindicators; alternative crop management, pest control and fertilisation; biodiversity; and pollutants and pesticides. We conclude that transgenic plants and biofuels are clearly emerging topics, whereas soil carbon and climate are the major mainstream topics of the last 10 years.

Table I

Top 3 yearly most cited articles in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. Number of citing articles, named cites, are from ISI-thompson on October 22, 2009. The top 5 highest cites are printed in bold. Full references are given in the reference list.

3. JOURNAL WEBSITE HITS

Table II

Mean emergence date (MED) of topics in articles from the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. Topics were searched in all article text, and thus do not necessarily reflect the article topic. Topics that showed highest hits in 2009 are printed in bold. Hits in percent refer to the number of articles containing topics measured using the journal website search engine on October 22–23, 2009, versus total yearly published articles. Mean emergence date was calculated as the average of years weighed by hits: ∑(Hits.year)/∑Hits, thus allowing to sort topics by order of emergence in the journal. Most recent topics have thus most recent date (see Fig. 1). For queries having several words, e.g. genetically modified, we used double quotes operators (“...”) to retrieve only answers from words appearing together. AD: Anno Domini.

We also studied topics by counting hits over 1999–2009 using the search engine of the journal website (Tab. II). As topics refer to queries found in the whole article text, topics do not necessarily represent article topic. We ranked topics by decreasing order of emergence using the mean emergence date calculated by averaging dates weighted by hits. Figures 1 and 2 show examples of the evolution of topic hits with time. Four evolution types were identified: (1) a plateau; for instance, ‘irrigation’ data shows a plateau with a mean emergence date of 2005.2. (2) A regular increase such as that for ‘crop rotation’ since 2003. ‘Crop rotation’ has thus a younger mean emergence date of 2006.2. (3) A sharp increase such as that for ‘organic farming’ after 2004. ‘Organic farming’ has thus an even younger mean emergence date of 2007.1. ‘Genetically modified’ exhibits the youngest mean emergence date of 2008.3. (4) A dive-rise such as that for ‘agroforestry’, showing a decrease from 1999 to 2003 followed by an increase from 2003 to 2009, suggesting a renewed interest in this topic.

thumbnail Figure 1

Emergence of topics in article text from the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. Note the shift to the right of most emerging topics in the journal. MED refers to mean emergence date (see Tab. III caption). Hits in percent refer to the number of articles containing topics measured using the journal website search engine (see Tab. III caption).

Table II shows that according to the mean emergence date the 10 most emerging topics are biofuels, genetically modified, conservation agriculture, urban agriculture, sociology, organic farming, carbon sequestration, phytoremediation, mulch and biodiversity. This finding confirms biofuels and transgenic plants as emerging topics from citation data (Tab. I). The predominance of soil carbon and climate is also apparent in most emerging topics.

Urban agriculture, ranking 3 in emergence, and sociology, ranking 4, are of special interest because those topics represent a clear change of thinking. Urban agriculture is challenging the common belief that crops should be cultivated in rural areas. Here, the idea of producing food close to consumers to decrease transportation pollution and costs is clearly elegant and apposite to fight climate change. The emergence of sociology can be explained both by increased interest from agronomists and by the shift in journal topics from 2004 (Lichtfouse et al., 2004). Table II also shows printed in bold the 5 top topics according to hits in 2009. Here, biodiversity is found in 55% of articles, crop rotation 49%, no tillage 43%, irrigation 40% and organic farming 38%. These data from one single year cannot be interpreted in terms of evolution, but they probably represent the major concerns of authors in 2009.

To conclude, the 10 most emerging topics according to mean emergence date are biofuels, genetically modified organisms, conservation agriculture, urban agriculture, sociology, organic farming, carbon sequestration, phytoremediation, mulch and biodiversity. Those topics can be roughly classified into two streams of research aiming at a more sustainable agriculture. First, an analytical stream that develops technological innovations in plant science such as transgenic plants and biofuels. Second, a systemic stream that develops innovative farming practices such as organic farming and urban agriculture. Concepts of the systemic stream are given by Hill and MacRae (1996), Vandermeer et al. (1998), Papy (2001), Dalgaard et al. (2003), Lichtfouse et al. (2009b), and references therein.

4. MOST-DOWNLOADED ARTICLES IN 2009

Topics of interest for readers of the journal can be evaluated by topics of the most-downloaded articles on the journal website (Tab. III). We observe three major categories of topics: (1) topics related to climate change, e.g. biofuels, drought and salt stress, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration in soils; (2) topics related to alternative management, e.g. agroindicators, fertilisation, beneficial microbes, intercropping and organic farming, and (3) topics related to food security, e.g. pollutants, alternative fertilisation and control, and organic farming. The predominance of topics such as carbon, climate, biodiversity, biofuels, pollutants, beneficial microbes, transgenic plants and organic farming agrees with our previous results.

thumbnail Figure 2

Evolution of the topic Agroforestry in article text from the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. Note the decrease until 2003 followed by an increase, suggesting a renewed interest. Hits in percent refer to the number of articles containing topics measured using the journal website search engine (see Tab. III caption).

5. REVIEW OF SELECTED 2009 ARTICLES

Here, we review selected articles published in 2009 in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. The fast emergence of new disciplines such as social and economic sciences in agronomic research is underlined by Wezel et al. (Wezel2009), Lamine and Bellon (Lamine2009), and Lichtfouse et al. (2009b). Wezel et al. (Wezel2009) reconstruct the historical rise of agroecology following the decline of industrial agriculture. It is noteworthy that these authors observe that the meaning of agroecology changes from one country to another. For instance, in Germany agroecology is mainly a science, whereas in France and in Brazil agroecology is also a green movement that is run by citizens.

5.1. Sociology

Sociology emergence in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development is highlighted well by Veldkamp et al. (2009), who designed an innovative Dutch project that takes into account the opinion of all stakeholders. The authors develop their ideas on the alternative principle that sustainable development requires a better balance of the triple P values – people, planet and prosperity. Another tantalising example of bridging sociology and agronomy is given by Fleming and Vanclay (2009), who analyse the impact of climate change on farmer discourses. The core issue is nicely underlined by a farmer interview: “What’s sustainable? You’ve got to look at our world as we know it. We’re not in a sustainable position at the moment. That’s why I say ’what’s sustainable?’ – I don’t know”. The authors found that farmers have four main discourses that guide their decision: money, earth, human responsibility and questioning. Disclosing which discourses are at work in a specific farming system is clearly needed because, to put it simply, farmers will not follow scientists’ advice if they are not convinced that this advice agrees with their discourses. De Bon et al. (Bon2009) show the social benefits of urban agriculture in developing countries. Lamine and Bellon (Lamine2009) review the conversion from intensive to organic farming using viewpoints from both agronomists and social scientists. They found that most publications report conversion effects and motivations, whereas few publications study transitions and trajectories. To conclude, the use of sociological tools to study farming systems is bringing unexpected findings to designing sustainable agriculture.

Table III

Top 30 most downloaded articles from the website of the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. *Counts from January 1, 2009 to October 27, 2009. Year refers to year of publication. PDF refers to number of articles downloaded. PDF: portable document format. Full references are given in the reference list. E-first refers to articles online published but not yet issue published; those articles will be published in 2010.

5.2. Transgenic crops

Transgenic crops is typically an emerging topic that has escaped the science sphere to be now a major social, economical and political issue. As a consequence, transgenic crops is therefore a well-suited research topic for agronomists that use sociology and economics. Like all major scientific breakthroughs, e.g. nitro-glycerine and nuclear energy, there are many arguments in favour of genetically modified organisms and many arguments against their use. Devos et al. (Devos2009) analyse policies ruling the coexistence of transgenic and non-transgenic maize in European nations. They found that current isolation distances are excessive, difficult to implement, and not economically viable. Very interestingly, they conclude that ‘other scientific issues must be at play’. Such an unknown may indeed be disclosed by the discourse approach of Fleming and Vanclay (2009).

Graef (2009) reviews possible adverse effects of introducing transgenic oilseed rape into Europe. He found that possible adverse effects to be monitored are persistence and spread of herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape, transfer of tolerance to wild relatives, development of herbicide tolerance of weeds, decrease in biodiversity, herbicide pollution, and adverse impact on field organisms and biogeochemical cycles. Hart et al. (2009) demonstrate for the first time the persistence of transgenic crop DNA residues within a soil food web. They found the transgene for glyphosate tolerance in soil arthropods, nematodes and earthworms from a transgenic corn field. The potential of transgene flow from transgenic crops’ wild relatives is addressed by Loureiro et al. (2009), who found that hybrids of wheat and its wild relative Aegilops biuncialis are formed easily with 9–75% hybridisation rates. To conclude, transgenic crops are highly innovative but show both benefits and drawbacks that need to be carefully studied using various disciplines.

5.3. Climate change

Climate change effects in Europe are reviewed in three reprints from an European report. First, Feehan et al. (Feehan2009) analyse major effects on terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity. Key trends include northward and uphill shift of plants, birds and mammals; and earlier seasonal events such as flowering, bird nesting and frog spawning. Second, Jones et al. (Jones2009) report major effects of climate change on soils. Key observations include a decrease in soil C over the last 25 years, a higher risk of erosion and projected increases in CO2 release in the atmosphere. It should be noted that there is much less evidence from soil studies because soil research is usually more difficult and needs more time - and funds - because most soil changes occur very slowly. Here, the major issue is that once adverse changes have occurred, e.g. soil carbon depletion, they cannot be healed fast. Therefore, management options that favour carbon sequestration and soil preservation should be applied (Doumbia et al., 2009; Benbi and Brar, Benbi2009; Hazarika et al., 2009; Pleguezuelo et al., 2009; Tuttobene et al., 2009). Principles for sustainable soil management are given by Lal (Lal2009cc, d).

Third, Lavalle et al. (Lavalle2009) review major effects of climate change on agriculture and forestry. Key trends include the shortening of the growing season in the south with higher risk of frost damage; flowering and maturity of crops occurring now about 2–3 weeks earlier; a higher yield variability due to extreme climate events such as the 2003 summer heat and the 2007 spring drought; a high increase of 50–70% in the water demand in Mediterranean areas; a faster forest growth; and a higher risk of forest fires. Tingem et al. (2009) simulate future crop yield in response to climate change in Cameroon. They found that developing later-maturing cultivars could greatly increase yields of maize, sorghum and bambara groundnut. Farooq et al. (Farooq2009) review effects of drought stress on plants. They also propose several solutions to counteract drought stress. To conclude, there are many scientific proofs of the effects of climate change on terrestrial ecosystems. Adverse, long-term effects such as soil carbon loss and erosion should be paid particular attention by agronomists.

5.4. Biodiversity

Biodiversity loss due to adverse effects of industrial agriculture is a major threat to sustainable agriculture. A well-known example is the decrease in bees. Indeed, bees and other insects carry pollen and thus are essential to the reproduction of some crops such as blueberries. Higher biodiversity is also a means to control crop diseases because pathogens and natural antagonists are better balanced. De Cauwer and Reheul (2009) investigate the impact of grassland management on plant biodiversity and invasive species. They found that abundance of non-leguminous dicots decreases with higher intensity use and N supply. They identify several land uses that suppress invasive species and optimise plant biodiversity. Weed diversity and density is also investigated by Izquierdo et al. (2009) and Koocheki et al. (2009). Pelosi et al. (2009) studied earthworm biodiversity in conventional, organic and living-mulch cropping systems. They found that the Shannon-Wiener and equitability indexes were higher in the living-mulch system. To conclude, agronomists are designing alternative cropping systems that optimise biodiversity, pest control and yield.

5.5. Alternative farming systems

Alternative management systems involving mixing plants, e.g. intercropping and agroforestry, are reviewed by Malézieux et al. (Malezieux2009). They found that potential benefits are higher overall productivity, better pest control and better ecological services. Koocheki et al. (2009) analysed the effect of different cropping systems and various crop rotations on weeds. To reduce the weed seed bank they propose rotations that include crops with different life cycles such as winter wheat-maize and winter wheat-sugar beet. To design and evaluate innovative cropping systems on a medium- and long-term basis, new methods are required combining simulation and field experimentation. Here, Debaeke et al. (2009) describe an iterative and rule-based approach to setting up cropping systems in response to a drastic reduction of water, nitrogen and pesticide inputs.

6. CONCLUSION

Citation analysis shows that transgenic plants and biofuels are clearly emerging topics, whereas soil carbon and climate change are the major mainstream topics of the last 10 years. The 10 most emerging topics according to mean emergence date are biofuels, genetically modified, conservation agriculture, urban agriculture, sociology, organic farming, carbon sequestration, phytoremediation, mulch and biodiversity. In 2009, the highest hits were found for biodiversity (55%), crop rotation (49%), no tillage (43%) and organic farming (38%). Analysis of most-downloaded articles in 2009 shows the predominance of topics such as carbon, climate, biodiversity, biofuels, pollutants, beneficial microbes, transgenic plants and organic farming. We find that sociology is clearly bringing novel and unexpected findings to designing sustainable agriculture. Transgenic crops are highly innovative but show many unknowns that need to be carefully studied using various disciplines. Climate change has many scientifically proven effects on terrestrial ecosystems and agriculture. Here, soil carbon loss should be of particular attention because it rules the long-term fate of many factors such as atmospheric CO2, erosion, and water and nutrient supply. Biodiversity loss due to industrial agriculture is leading scientists to disclose alternative, more diverse cropping systems that optimise biodiversity, pest control and yield.

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  • Lavalle C., Micale F., Houston T.D., Camia A., Hiederer R., Lazar C., Conte C., Amatulli G., Genovese G. (2009) Climate change in Europe. 3. Impact on agriculture and forestry. A review, Agron. Sustain. Dev. 29, 433–446 [CrossRef] [EDP Sciences]
  • Le Bissonnais Y., Lecomte V., Cerdan O. (2004) Grass strip effects on runoff and soil loss, Agronomie 24, 129–136 [CrossRef]
  • Lichtfouse E. (2009a) Sustainable Agriculture as a Central Science to Solve Global Society Issues, in: Lichtfouse E. (Ed.), Organic Farming, Pest Control and Remediation of Soil Pollutants. Sustainable Agriculture Reviews, Vol. 1, Springer, pp. 1–3.
  • Lichtfouse E. (2009b) Climate Change, Society Issues and Sustainable Agriculture, in: Lichtfouse E. (Ed.), Climate Change, Intercropping, Pest Control and Beneficial Microorganisms. Sustainable Agriculture Reviews, Vol. 2, Springer, pp. 1–7.
  • Lichtfouse E. (2009c) Society issues, painkiller solutions, dependence and sustainable agriculture, in: Lichtfouse E. (Ed.), Sociology, Organic Farming, Climate Change and Soil Science. Sustainable Agriculture Reviews, Vol. 3, Springer, pp. 1–17.
  • Lichtfouse E. (2009d) Organic Farming, Pest Control and Remediation of Soil Pollutants. Sustainable Agriculture Reviews, Vol. 1, Springer, 418 p. (In the text)
  • Lichtfouse E. (2009e) Climate Change, Intercropping, Pest Control and Beneficial Microorganisms. Sustainable Agriculture Reviews, Vol. 2, Springer, 514 p.
  • Lichtfouse E. (2009f) Sociology, Organic Farming, Climate Change and Soil Science. Sustainable Agriculture Reviews, Vol. 3, Springer, 478 p., ISBN: 978-90-481-3332-1, in press.
  • Lichtfouse E. (2009g) Genetic engineering, biofertilisation, soil quality and organic farming. Sustainable Agriculture Reviews, Vol. 4, Springer, Approx. 400 p., ISBN: 978-90-481-8740-9, in press.
  • Lichtfouse E., Habib R., Meynard J.-M., Papy F. (2004) Agronomy for Sustainable Development, Agronomie 24, 445. [CrossRef] [EDP Sciences] (In the text)
  • Lichtfouse E., Navarrete M., Debaeke P., Souchère V., Alberola C. (2009a) Sustainable Agriculture, Springer - EDPS, ISBN: 978-90-481-2665-1, 919 p.
  • Lichtfouse E., Navarrete M., Debaeke P., Souchère V., Alberola C., Menassieu J. (2009b) Agronomy for sustainable agriculture. A review, Agron. Sustain. Dev. 29, 1–6 [CrossRef] [EDP Sciences] (In the text)
  • Loureiro I., Escorial C., Garcia-Baudin J.M., Chueca C. (2009) Hybridization, fertility and herbicide resistance of hybrids between wheat and Aegilops biuncialis, Agron. Sustain. Dev. 29, 237–245 [CrossRef] [EDP Sciences] (In the text)
  • Malézieux E., Crozat Y., Dupraz C., Laurans M., Makowski D., Ozier-Lafontaine H., Rapidel B., de Tourdonnet S., Valantin-Morison M. (2009) Mixing plant species in cropping systems: concepts, tools and models. A review, Agron. Sustain. Dev. 29, 43–62 [CrossRef] [EDP Sciences]
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  • Pelosi C., Bertr, M., Roger-Estrade J. (2009) Earthworm community in conventional, organic and direct seeding with living mulch cropping systems, Agron. Sustain. Dev. 29, 287–295 [CrossRef] [EDP Sciences] (In the text)
  • Pleguezuelo C.R.R., Zuazo V.H.D., Raya A.M., Martinez J.R.F., Rodrigues B.C. (2009) High reduction of erosion and nutrient losses by decreasing harvest intensity of lavender grown on slopes, Agron. Sustain. Dev. 29, 363–370 [CrossRef] [EDP Sciences] (In the text)
  • Reichrath S., Davies T.W. (2002) Using CFD to model the internal climate of greenhouses: past, present and future, Agronomie 22, 3–19 [CrossRef]
  • Rout G.R., Das P. (2003) Effect of metal toxicity on plant growth and metabolism: I. Zinc, Agronomie 23, 3–11 [CrossRef]
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  • Veldkamp A., Van Altvorst A.C., Eweg R., Jacobsen E., Van Kleef A., Van Latesteijn H., Mager S., Mommaas H., Smeets P., Spaans L., Van Trijp J.C.M. (2009) Triggering transitions towards sustainable development of the Dutch agricultural sector: TransForum’s approach, Agron. Sustain. Dev. 29, 87–96 [CrossRef] [EDP Sciences] (In the text)
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All Tables

Table I

Top 3 yearly most cited articles in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. Number of citing articles, named cites, are from ISI-thompson on October 22, 2009. The top 5 highest cites are printed in bold. Full references are given in the reference list.

Table II

Mean emergence date (MED) of topics in articles from the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. Topics were searched in all article text, and thus do not necessarily reflect the article topic. Topics that showed highest hits in 2009 are printed in bold. Hits in percent refer to the number of articles containing topics measured using the journal website search engine on October 22–23, 2009, versus total yearly published articles. Mean emergence date was calculated as the average of years weighed by hits: ∑(Hits.year)/∑Hits, thus allowing to sort topics by order of emergence in the journal. Most recent topics have thus most recent date (see Fig. 1). For queries having several words, e.g. genetically modified, we used double quotes operators (“...”) to retrieve only answers from words appearing together. AD: Anno Domini.

Table III

Top 30 most downloaded articles from the website of the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. *Counts from January 1, 2009 to October 27, 2009. Year refers to year of publication. PDF refers to number of articles downloaded. PDF: portable document format. Full references are given in the reference list. E-first refers to articles online published but not yet issue published; those articles will be published in 2010.

All Figures

thumbnail Figure 1

Emergence of topics in article text from the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. Note the shift to the right of most emerging topics in the journal. MED refers to mean emergence date (see Tab. III caption). Hits in percent refer to the number of articles containing topics measured using the journal website search engine (see Tab. III caption).

In the text
thumbnail Figure 2

Evolution of the topic Agroforestry in article text from the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. Note the decrease until 2003 followed by an increase, suggesting a renewed interest. Hits in percent refer to the number of articles containing topics measured using the journal website search engine (see Tab. III caption).

In the text