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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

Continuous decrease in soil organic matter despite increased plant productivity in an 80-years-old phosphorus-addition experiment

Spohn, Marie; Braun, Sabina; Sierra, Carlos A.


The objective of this study was to understand how eight decades of tillage affected soil element dynamics. We measured soil chemical properties and the C-14:C-12 ratio (& UDelta;C-14) of organic carbon in one of the oldest cropland experiments in Europe with different levels of phosphorus addition. Soil total and organic phosphorus stocks in the uppermost 20 cm did not differ significantly between the control and the phosphorus addition treatments after 80 years, indicating plant phosphorus uptake from the subsoil. Crop yields increased from 220 g dry weight m(-2) in 1936 to more than 500 g dry weight m(-2) in the 2010s. The soil total organic carbon and total organic phosphorus stocks decreased by 13.7% and 11.6%, respectively, in the uppermost 20 cm of the soils during the experiment, irrespective of phosphorus addition. Based on modeling of & UDelta;C-14, we show that the mean transit time of carbon in the soil was below 10 years, indicating that a large share of the carbon inputs to soil is quickly respired. Our results suggest that the current agricultural practice at this long-term experiment is not sustainable because it led to a continuous decrease in soil organic matter over the last decades, despite increases in plant productivity.Several decades of tillage drives continual decreases in soil organic carbon, nitrogen and organic phosphorus with mean carbon transit times in soils estimated at less than 10 years despite increased plant productivity, suggest chemical analyses of European cropland soils.

Published in

Communications earth & environment
2023, Volume: 4, number: 1, article number: 251