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Review article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

Soil and crop management practices and the water regulation functions of soils: a qualitative synthesis of meta-analyses relevant to European agriculture

Blanchy, Guillaume; Bragato, Gilberto; Di Bene, Claudia; Jarvis, Nicholas; Larsbo, Mats; Meurer, Katharina; Garré, Sarah

Abstract

Adopting soil and crop management practices that conserve or enhance soil structure is critical for supporting the sustainable adaptation of agriculture to climate change, as it should help maintain agricultural production in the face of increasing drought or water excess without impairing environmental quality. In this paper, we evaluate the evidence for this assertion by synthesizing the results of 34 published meta-analyses of the effects of such practices on soil physical and hydraulic properties relevant for climate change adaptation in European agriculture. We also review an additional 127 meta-analyses that investigated synergies and trade-offs or help to explain the effects of soil and crop management in terms of the underlying processes and mechanisms. Finally, we identify how responses to alternative soil–crop management systems vary under contrasting agro-environmental conditions across Europe. This information may help practitioners and policymakers to draw context-specific conclusions concerning the efficacy of management practices as climate adaptation tools.

Our synthesis demonstrates that organic soil amendments and the adoption of practices that maintain “continuous living cover” result in significant benefits for the water regulation function of soils, mostly arising from the additional carbon inputs to soil and the stimulation of biological processes. These effects are clearly related to improved soil aggregation and enhanced bio-porosity, both of which reduce surface runoff and increase infiltration. One potentially negative consequence of these systems is a reduction in soil water storage and groundwater recharge, which may be problematic in dry climates. Some important synergies are reductions in nitrate leaching to groundwater and greenhouse gas emissions for nonleguminous cover crop systems. The benefits of reducing tillage intensity appear much less clear-cut. Increases in soil bulk density due to traffic compaction are commonly reported. However, biological activity is enhanced under reduced tillage intensity, which should improve soil structure and infiltration capacity and reduce surface runoff and the losses of agro-chemicals to surface water. However, the evidence for these beneficial effects is inconclusive, while significant trade-offs include yield penalties and increases in greenhouse gas emissions and the risks of leaching of pesticides and nitrate.

Our synthesis also highlights important knowledge gaps on the effects of management practices on root growth and transpiration. Thus, conclusions related to the impacts of management on the crop water supply and other water regulation functions are necessarily based on inferences derived from proxy variables. Based on these knowledge gaps, we outlined several key avenues for future research on this topic.

Published in

Soil
2023, volume: 9, number: 1, pages: 1-20

Authors' information

Blanchy, Guillaume
Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
Bragato, Gilberto
The Council for Agricultural Research and Economics (CREA)
Di Bene, Claudia
The Council for Agricultural Research and Economics (CREA)
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Soil and Environment
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Soil and Environment
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Soil and Environment
Garré, Sarah
Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

UKÄ Subject classification

Soil Science

Publication Identifiers

DOI: https://doi.org/10.5194/soil-9-1-2023

URI (permanent link to this page)

https://res.slu.se/id/publ/120550