Articles | Volume 2, issue 4
Original research article
10 Oct 2016
Original research article |  | 10 Oct 2016

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

Georgina Key, Mike G. Whitfield, Julia Cooper, Franciska T. De Vries, Martin Collison, Thanasis Dedousis, Richard Heathcote, Brendan Roth, Shamal Mohammed, Andrew Molyneux, Wim H. Van der Putten, Lynn V. Dicks, William J. Sutherland, and Richard D. Bardgett

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.