Knowledge needs, available actions 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, W.H. van der Putten, L.V. Dicks, W.J. Sutherland, R.D. Bardgett

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)511-521
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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