decomposing plant matter

What Is Nutrient Cycling: How Nutrients Move and Benefit Agriculture

Have you ever wondered how plants get the nutrients they need to grow? Nutrient cycling is the natural process that helps deliver essential elements, like nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon, to plants in a way that keeps our agricultural systems healthy. Let’s explore this process and understand how it works to support sustainable farming.

Nutrient Cycling in the Soil

In the world of farming, nutrient cycling starts with the breakdown of plant and animal matter in the soil. When things like leaves, plants, and animal waste decompose, they release valuable nutrients into the soil.

These nutrients act as food for plants, which absorb them through their roots. As plants grow, they take in these nutrients and use them to thrive. When plants and animals die or leave behind plant debris, the nutrients go back into the soil, completing the cycle.

Microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi, are tiny helpers in this process.

They break down the organic matter and unlock nutrients, making them available for plants to absorb. Without these microorganisms, the cycle would be disrupted, and plants wouldn’t get the nutrients they need.

fungi growing in a forest
Bacteria and fungi are essential microorganisms for soil health.

Nutrient Cycling in Water

Nutrient cycling is not just important on land; it also plays a crucial role in aquatic environments. In water bodies like lakes and rivers, nutrients come from different sources, including decaying plants and animals, and runoff from the land.

In these aquatic ecosystems, tiny floating plants called phytoplankton are key players in nutrient cycling.

They absorb nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, from the water. These nutrients help the phytoplankton grow, and they become food for other organisms. As the food chain continues, the nutrients get passed along, ensuring a continuous cycle of nutrients within the aquatic ecosystem.

Human Impact on Nutrient Cycling

Sometimes, human activities can disrupt nutrient cycling.

For example, when we use too many synthetic fertilizers in agriculture, it can lead to imbalances and pollution. These excess fertilizers can end up in water bodies, causing problems like the overgrowth of algae, which harms aquatic life.

a specialised strip tillage machine working in a field
Minimum tillage practices such as strip tillage are beneficial sustainable practices.

Deforestation is another human activity that disrupts nutrient cycling.

Trees are crucial in capturing and recycling nutrients. When forests are cleared, the cycle is interrupted, and valuable nutrients are lost. Erosion, which occurs when the topsoil washes away due to deforestation, worsens the situation by taking away nutrient-rich soil.

Examples of Nutrient Cycling in Action

To help you better understand nutrient cycling, let’s look at a few examples of specific nutrient cycles:

1. Carbon Cycle: Carbon is essential for life on Earth. Through a process called photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into organic compounds. When plants and animals respire or decompose, carbon is released back into the atmosphere, completing the cycle.

2. Nitrogen Cycle: Nitrogen is crucial for plant growth. Certain bacteria can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use. Plants take in nitrogen through their roots, and when plants and animals die, nitrogen returns to the soil. Microorganisms then convert it back into atmospheric nitrogen through processes like denitrification.

3. Phosphorus Cycle: Phosphorus is vital for energy transfer in living organisms. It cycles through both land and water ecosystems. When rocks break down, phosphorus is released into the soil, where plants can absorb it. When plants and animals die, phosphorus returns to the soil or water, restarting the cycle.

Promoting Sustainable Nutrient Cycling

To support healthy nutrient cycling and sustainable agriculture, farmers can adopt the following practices:

1. Composting and Organic Waste Management: Recycling organic waste, such as leftover crops and animal manure, through composting helps add nutrients back to the soil and reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers.

compost waste
Composting is great for recycling waste food.

2. Crop Rotation and Cover Cropping: Alternating different crops in a field and planting cover crops during resting periods improves soil health, prevents nutrient depletion, and reduces pest and disease problems.

3. Conservation Tillage and Erosion Control: Minimizing soil disturbance through practices like no-till or minimum tillage helps preserve soil structure, prevents erosion, and retains nutrients.


Nutrient cycling is a natural process that ensures plants get the nutrients they need to grow, benefiting agriculture and the environment. By understanding how nutrients move through ecosystems, we can make informed choices to promote sustainable farming practices. Let’s take care of our soils, preserve natural nutrient cycles, and cultivate healthy crops while protecting our planet for future generations.