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Soil management in relation to sustainable agriculture and ecosystem services

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

Published

  • D. S. Powlson
  • P. J. Gregory
  • W. R. Whalley
  • J. N. Quinton
  • D. W. Hopkins
  • A. P. Whitmore
  • P. R. Hirsch
  • K. W. T. Goulding
Journal publication date01/2011
JournalFood Policy
Journal numberSupplement 1
Volume36
Number of pages16
PagesS72-S87
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Requirements for research, practices and policies affecting soil management in relation to global food security are reviewed. Managing soil organic carbon (C) is central because soil organic matter influences numerous soil properties relevant to ecosystem functioning and crop growth. Even small changes in total C content can have disproportionately large impacts on key soil physical properties. Practices to encourage maintenance of soil C are important for ensuring sustainability of all soil functions. Soil is a major store of C within the biosphere – increases or decreases in this large stock can either mitigate or worsen climate change. Deforestation, conversion of grasslands to arable cropping and drainage of wetlands all cause emission of C; policies and international action to minimise these changes are urgently required. Sequestration of C in soil can contribute to climate change mitigation but the real impact of different options is often misunderstood. Some changes in management that are beneficial for soil C, increase emissions of nitrous oxide (a powerful greenhouse gas) thus cancelling the benefit. Research on soil physical processes and their interactions with roots can lead to improved and novel practices to improve crop access to water and nutrients. Increased understanding of root function has implications for selection and breeding of crops to maximise capture of water and nutrients. Roots are also a means of delivering natural plant-produced chemicals into soil with potentially beneficial impacts. These include biocontrol of soil-borne pests and diseases and inhibition of the nitrification process in soil (conversion of ammonium to nitrate) with possible benefits for improved nitrogen use efficiency and decreased nitrous oxide emission. The application of molecular methods to studies of soil organisms, and their interactions with roots, is providing new understanding of soil ecology and the basis for novel practical applications. Policy makers and those concerned with development of management approaches need to keep a watching brief on emerging possibilities from this fast-moving area of science. Nutrient management is a key challenge for global food production: there is an urgent need to increase nutrient availability to crops grown by smallholder farmers in developing countries. Many changes in practices including inter-cropping, inclusion of nitrogen-fixing crops, agroforestry and improved recycling have been clearly demonstrated to be beneficial: facilitating policies and practical strategies are needed to make these widely available, taking account of local economic and social conditions. In the longer term fertilizers will be essential for food security: policies and actions are needed to make these available and affordable to small farmers. In developed regions, and those developing rapidly such as China, strategies and policies to manage more precisely the necessarily large flows of nutrients in ways that minimise environmental damage are essential. A specific issue is to minimise emissions of nitrous oxide whilst ensuring sufficient nitrogen is available for adequate food production. Application of known strategies (through either regulation or education), technological developments, and continued research to improve understanding of basic processes will all play a part. Decreasing soil erosion is essential, both to maintain the soil resource and to minimise downstream damage such as sedimentation of rivers with adverse impacts on fisheries. Practical strategies are well known but often have financial implications for farmers. Examples of systems for paying one group of land users for ecosystem services affecting others exist in several parts of the world and serve as a model.

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