Articles | Volume 3, issue 1
SOIL, 3, 45–59, 2017

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

SOIL, 3, 45–59, 2017

Review article 01 Mar 2017

Review article | 01 Mar 2017

Soil conservation in the 21st century: why we need smart agricultural intensification

Gerard Govers1, Roel Merckx1, Bas van Wesemael2, and Kristof Van Oost2 Gerard Govers et al.
  • 1KU Leuven, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Celestijnenlaan 200E, 3001 Leuven, Belgium
  • 2Université Catholique de Louvain, Earth and Life Institute, 3 Place Louis Pasteur, 1348 Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium

Abstract. Soil erosion severely threatens the soil resource and the sustainability of agriculture. After decades of research, this problem still persists, despite the fact that adequate technical solutions now exist for most situations. This begs the question as to why soil conservation is not more rapidly and more generally implemented. Studies show that the implementation of soil conservation measures depends on a multitude of factors but it is also clear that rapid change in agricultural systems only happens when a clear economic incentive is present for the farmer. Conservation measures are often more or less cost-neutral, which explains why they are often less generally adopted than expected. This needs to be accounted for when developing a strategy on how we may achieve effective soil conservation in the Global South, where agriculture will fundamentally change in the next century. In this paper we argue that smart intensification is a necessary component of such a strategy. Smart intensification will not only allow for soil conservation to be made more economical, but will also allow for significant gains to be made in terms of soil organic carbon storage, water efficiency and biodiversity, while at the same time lowering the overall erosion risk. While smart intensification as such will not lead to adequate soil conservation, it will facilitate it and, at the same time, allow for the farmers of the Global South to be offered a more viable future.

Short summary
We discuss pathways towards better soil protection in the 21st century. The efficacy of soil conservation technology is not a fundamental barrier for a more sustainable soil management. However, soil conservation is generally not directly beneficial to the farmer. We believe that the solution of this conundrum is a rapid, smart intensification of agriculture in the Global South. This will reduce the financial burden and will, at the same time, allow more effective conservation.