Ecological knowledge has the potential to significantly enhance agroecosystem function, the provision of ecosystem services, and agricultural sustainability. Currently the application of ecological knowledge to agricultural systems lags behind our scientific understanding. In other words, agricultural practice does not reflect the full extent of our scientific knowledge that can serve societal goals of decreasing the negative consequences of agricultural production while maintaining high levels of productivity. The sub-discipline of soil ecology provides an important case to examine this relationship. The obstacles that prevent better linkages between ecological theory and agricultural practice are systemic and occur at many scales and nodes within the sociotechnological infrastructure that drives on-farm management.
Within the research community, much agronomic research targets environmental problems occurring at large temporal and spatial scales. However, most of this research still emphasizes crop production, and research designs and metrics reflect this bias. For example, the majority of 15N tracer studies in grain agroecosystems only followed N for one growing season and did not measure the flow of N into key soil pools. Institutions supporting agriculture can provide an impetus for the implementation of ecologically-based management approaches, but the application of ecological principles to agricultural production is limited at the scale of institutions and knowledge networks in which farms are embedded. In the case of Integrated Pest Management, the lack of ecological training for extensionists and cooptation to serve the interests of capital proved significant barriers that led to the application of weaker, less ecologically-grounded versions of the theory. At the national level, agricultural policies and regulation reinforce the command and control model of natural resource management rather than ecosystem-based, adaptive strategies. Policies largely do not reward farmers for ecosystem services, and the small proportion of incentive programs directed at environmental outcomes often fail to account for spatial heterogeneity and target single practices rather than management systems. For example, a case study of industrial grain farmers in the Mississippi River Basin indicates that more than half of farmers do not respond to environmental variability on their farm when managing nutrient additions. Expanding the application of ecological approaches to soil management will require fundamental transformations at multiple scales, informed by diverse actors including interdisciplinary research teams. Despite existing barriers, the use and support of an ecosystem services framework at various levels holds great promise for bridging the gap between soil ecology and agricultural practice.