Towards a farmer-feasible soil health assessment that is globally applicable

Helen Hughes, S. Koolen, Matthias Kuhnert , Liz Baggs, S. Maund, G.W. Mullier, Jon Hillier

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Globally, agriculture has had a significant and often detrimental impact on soil. The continued capacity of soil to function as a living ecosystem that sustains microbes, plants, and animals (including humans), its metaphorical health, is of vital importance across geographic scales. Healthy soil underpins food production and ecosystem resilience against a changing climate. This paper focuses on assessing soil health, an area of increasing interest for farming communities, researchers, industry and policy-makers. Without accessible and reliable soil assessment, any management and interventions to improve soil health are likely to be sub-optimal. Here we explore available soil health assessments (SHAs) that may be feasible for farmers of varying income levels and suitable for broad geographic application. Whilst there is a range of existing approaches to SHA, we find that no one framework currently meets these broad aims. Firstly, reliance on expensive and logistically complex laboratory methods reduces viability and accessibility for many farmers. Secondly, lack of defined indicator baselines and associated thresholds or gradients for soil health prevents the assessment of soil measurements against achieving optima for a given set of local soil-climate conditions. Since soils vary greatly, these baselines and thresholds must be defined considering the local biogeographic context; it is inappropriate to simply transfer calibrated information between contexts. These shortcomings demand progress towards a feasible, globally applicable and context-relevant SHA framework. The most feasible SHAs we identified were developed locally in conjunction with farmers, who have been repeatedly found to assess the health of their soils accurately, often using relatively simple, observable indications. To progress, we propose assessment of which indicators add information to a SHA in local contexts, with a focus on sufficiency, to reduce data burden. Provision of a standardised protocol for measurement and sampling that considers the reliability and accuracy of different methods would also be extremely valuable. For greatest impact, future work should be taken forward through a cross-industry collaborative approach involving researchers, businesses, policy makers, and, above all, farmers, who are both experts and users.

Original languageEnglish
Article number118582
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
Issue number118582
Early online date2 Aug 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2023

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • minimum data set
  • soil assessment
  • soil health
  • soil management
  • decision support


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