Articles | Volume 2, issue 4
SOIL, 2, 511–521, 2016

Special issue: Soil science in a changing world: contributions of soil science...

SOIL, 2, 511–521, 2016

Original research article 10 Oct 2016

Original research article | 10 Oct 2016

Knowledge needs, available practices, and future challenges in agricultural soils

Georgina Key1, Mike G. Whitfield2, Julia Cooper3, Franciska T. De Vries1, Martin Collison4, Thanasis Dedousis5, Richard Heathcote6, Brendan Roth7, Shamal Mohammed8, Andrew Molyneux9, Wim H. Van der Putten10, Lynn V. Dicks11, William J. Sutherland11, and Richard D. Bardgett1 Georgina Key et al.
  • 1School of Earth and Environmental Sciences from Faculty of Life Sciences, Michael Smith Building, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL, UK
  • 2Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, LA1 4YQ, UK
  • 3School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Newcastle University, Kings Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, UK
  • 4Collison and Associates Limited, Honeysuckle Cottage, Shepherdsgate Road, Tilney All Saints, King's Lynn, Norfolk, PE34 4RW, UK
  • 5European Agro Development Team, PepsiCo Europe, Rue du Rhône 50, 1204 Geneva, Switzerland
  • 6Richard Heathcote, R & J Sustainability Consulting Ltd, working with: National Association of Cider Makers, Cool Farm Alliance, and Innovate UK, 21 Lattimore Road, Stratford-upon-Avon, CV37 0RZ, UK
  • 7Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London, SW1P 3JR, UK
  • 8GeoInfo Fusion Ltd, Cranfield, Bedford, MK43 0DG, UK
  • 9Huntapac Produce Ltd, 293 Blackgate Lane, Holmes, Tarleton, Preston, Lancashire, PR4 6JJ, UK
  • 10Netherlands Institute of Ecology, Department of Terrestrial Ecology and Laboratory of Nematology, Wageningen University and Research Centre, Droevendaalsesteeg 10, 6708 PB Wageningen, the Netherlands
  • 11Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, CB2 3QZ, UK

Abstract. The goal of this study is to clarify research needs and identify effective practices for enhancing soil health. This was done by a synopsis of soil literature that specifically tests practices designed to maintain or enhance elements of soil health. Using an expert panel of soil scientists and practitioners, we then assessed the evidence in the soil synopsis to highlight practices beneficial to soil health, practices considered detrimental, and practices that need further investigation. A partial Spearman's correlation was used to analyse the panel's responses. We found that increased certainty in scientific evidence led to practices being considered to be more effective due to them being empirically justified. This suggests that for practices to be considered effective and put into practice, a substantial body of research is needed to support the effectiveness of the practice. This is further supported by the high proportion of practices (33 %), such as changing the timing of ploughing or amending the soil with crops grown as green manures, that experts felt had unknown effectiveness, usually due to insufficiently robust evidence. Only 7 of the 27 reviewed practices were considered to be beneficial, or likely to be beneficial in enhancing soil health. These included the use of (1) integrated nutrient management (organic and inorganic amendments); (2) cover crops; (3) crop rotations; (4) intercropping between crop rows or underneath the main crop; (5) formulated chemical compounds (such as nitrification inhibitors); (6) control of traffic and traffic timing; and (7) reducing grazing intensity. Our assessment, which uses the Delphi technique, is increasingly used to improve decision-making in conservation and agricultural policy, identified practices that can be put into practice to benefit soil health. Moreover, it has enabled us to identify practices that need further research and a need for increased communication between researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners, in order to find effective means of enhancing soil health.

Short summary
Enhancing soil health is key to providing ecosystem services and food security. There are often trade-offs to using a particular practice, or it is not fully understood. This work aimed to identify practices beneficial to soil health and gaps in our knowledge. We reviewed existing research on agricultural practices and an expert panel assessed their effectiveness. The three most beneficial practices used a mix of organic or inorganic material, cover crops, or crop rotations.