APS 346 Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems

Level 3
Semester 1A
Credits 10
Pre/Co Requisites -
Teaching Staff Professor  Jonathan Leake
Co-ordinator Professor  Jonathan Leake


This course will:
• Review the threats to sustainable food production and to natural ecosystems caused by rising human populations, by unsustainable use of natural resources and interactions with anthropogenic climate change.
• Raise awareness of human impacts on agro-ecosystems and the foundational importance of soil ecosystems in sustaining the terrestrial biosphere.
• To consider how ecosystems sustainably function in nature and how to apply this knowledge to sustainable agro-ecosystem management.
• Demonstrate the need for new sustainable approaches to agro-ecosystems to ensure future food, fuel and soil security and to reduce the damage to natural ecosystems.


This module highlights the threats to sustainable food production and ecosystem functioning caused by human impacts on soils and ecosystems. It shows that how we sustainably manage agro-ecosystems now, and in the immediate future, will determine the fate of humanity. Soils provide the foundations of terrestrial ecosystems, food and biofuel production, but are amongst the most badly abused and damaged components of the ecosphere. They play a vital role in providing crucial ecosystem services such as the storage of nutrients, organic carbon and fresh water; the production of food; and supporting biodiversity. Demand for food is set to increase by more than 50% in the next 40 years as the human population increases from 6 billion to over 9 billion and dietary shifts towards animal-based foods demand more production, but we have lost nearly a third of the global cultivable topsoil to erosion and pollution in the past 40 years. Now global warming, agricultural intensification, biofuels and unsustainable use of fertilizers and fossil fuel energy pose critical threats to global food production and sustainable agro-ecosystems - and their impacts on soil ecosystems are central to these threats.

The module considers how we can learn from understanding how ecosystems function in nature to develop new forms of sustainable agriculture beyond some of the more narrowly prescriptive approaches such as ‘organic farming’, which are seeking to reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture. Because soils store more than three times more carbon than is in vegetation they play a vital role in carbon sequestration from the atmosphere, but this is increasingly threatened by climate change and unsustainable management. Anthropogenic activities have caused soils to release increasing amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere so their mismanagement is an important driver of climate change. The focus in the module is on demonstrating the inter-dependence, in natural ecosystems, of soils and the ecosystems which are founded upon them and the significance for global biogeochemical cycles, food production and sustainability.

Delivery Method: 16 lectures plus an exam advice session

Assessment Method: 1 1/2 hour examination.

Assessment Weighting: 100% Exam

JISC Submission: None

Feedback: Students can receive feedback on performance in examinations by arranging a meeting with their personal tutor after mid-March.