09 May 2022
09 May 2022

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

Guillaume Blanchy1, Gilberto Bragato2, Claudia Di Bene3, Nicholas Jarvis4, Mats Larsbo4, Katharina Meurer4, and Sarah Garré1 Guillaume Blanchy et al.
  • 1Flemish Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (EV-ILVO), Burgemeester van Gansberghelaan 92/1 9820 Merelbeke, Belgium
  • 2Council for Agricultural Research and Economics, Research Centre for Agriculture and Environment (CREA-AA), via Trieste 23, 34170 Gorizia, Italy
  • 3Council for Agricultural Research and Economics, Research Centre for Agriculture and Environment (CREA-AA), via della Navicella 2-4, 00184 Rome, Italy
  • 4Department of Soil and Environment, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Box 7014, 750 07 Uppsala, Sweden

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 non-leguminous 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, 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.

Guillaume Blanchy et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-270', Anonymous Referee #1, 10 Jun 2022
    • AC1: 'Reply on RC1', Sarah Garré, 25 Jul 2022
  • RC2: 'Comment on egusphere-2022-270', Anonymous Referee #2, 23 Jun 2022
    • AC2: 'Reply on RC2', Sarah Garré, 25 Jul 2022

Guillaume Blanchy et al.

Data sets

Supporting studies Guillaume Blanchy, Nicholas Jarvis

Model code and software

Review of meta-analysis Guillaume Blanchy

Executable research compendia (ERC)

Redundancy analysis Guillaume Blanchy

Guillaume Blanchy et al.


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Short summary
European agriculture is vulnerable to weather extremes. Nevertheless, by choosing well how to manage their land, farmers can protect themselves against drought and peak rains. More than a thousand observations across Europe show that it is important to keep the soil covered with living plants, even in winter. A focus on a general reduction of traffic on agricultural land is more important than reducing tillage. Organic material needs to remain or be added on the field as much as possible.