Knowledge needs, available actions and future challenges in agricultural soils

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  • External authors:
  • Georgina Key
  • Mike G. Whitfield
  • Julia Cooper
  • Martin Collison
  • Thanasis Dedousis
  • Richard Heathcote
  • Brendan Roth
  • S. A. M. Shamal
  • Andrew Molyneux
  • Wim H. Van der Putten
  • Lynn V. Dicks
  • William J. Sutherland


The goal of this study is to clarify research needs and identify effective actions for enhancing soil health. This was done by a synopsis of soil literature that specifically tests actions 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 actions beneficial to soil health, actions considered detrimental, and actions that need further investigation. Only seven of the 27 reviewed actions were considered to be beneficial, or likely to be beneficial in enhancing soil health. These included the use of a mixture of organic and inorganic soil amendments, cover crops, crop rotations, and growth of crops between crop rows or underneath the main crop, and the use of formulated chemical compounds (such as nitrification inhibitors), the control of traffic and traffic timing, and reducing grazing intensity. Using a partial Spearman's correlation to analyse the panel's responses, we found that increased certainty in scientific evidence led to actions being considered to be more effective due to them being empirically justified. This suggests that for actions to be considered effective and put into practice, a substantial body of research is needed to support the effectiveness of the action. This is further supported by the high proportion of actions (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 insufficient robust evidence. Our assessment, which uses the Delphi technique, increasingly used to improve decision-making in conservation and agricultural policy, identified actions that can be put into practice to benefit soil health. Moreover, it has enabled us to identify actions 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.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 11 May 2016