Soil organic matter (SOM) is declining in most agricultural ecosystems, impacting multiple ecosystem services including erosion and flood prevention, climate and greenhouse gas regulation as well as other services that underpin crop production, such as nutrient cycling and pest control. Ecological intensification aims to enhance crop productivity by including regulating and supporting ecosystem service management into agricultural practices. We investigate the potential for increased SOM to support the ecological intensification of arable systems by reducing the need for nitrogen fertiliser application and pest control. Using a large-scale European field trial implemented across 84 fields in 5 countries, we tested whether increased SOM (using soil organic carbon as a proxy) helps recover yield in the absence of conventional nitrogen fertiliser and whether this also supports crops less favourable to key aphid pests. Greater SOM increased yield by 10%, but did not offset nitrogen fertiliser application entirely, which improved yield by 30%. Crop pest responses depended on species: Metopolophium dirhodum were more abundant in fertilised plots with high crop biomass, and although population growth rates of Sitobion avenae were enhanced by nitrogen fertiliser application in a cage trial, field populations were not affected. We conclude that under increased SOM and reduced fertiliser application, pest pressure can be reduced, while partially compensating for yield deficits linked to fertiliser reduction. If the benefits of reduced fertiliser application and increased SOM are considered in a wider environmental context, then a yield cost may become acceptable. Maintaining or increasing SOM is critical for achieving ecological intensification of European cereal production.
- arable farming
- ecological intensification
- fertiliser, soil organic matter