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Journal of Agricultural Science, Page 1 of 8.

Cambridge University Press 2010




Integrated soil management moving towards globally

sustainable agriculture
K. K I L L H A M
Remedios Ltd, Aberdeen, Scotland, UK
(Revised MS received 27 September 2010; Accepted 28 September 2010)

This review introduces the main concepts behind integrated soil management (ISM) and examines
the ways in which it currently operates. It suggests the scope for future technological development. The
review also highlights the potential of ISM to address the challenge of meeting the demands of the
increasing world population, while maintaining sustainable agro-ecosystems, as judged from longterm soil fertility, environmental and socio-economic perspectives. Changes to policy, governance and
funding worldwide will be needed to conserve and manage the soil resource, and to restore already
degraded systems. Research should be prioritized to ensure continued delivery of new soil technologies. Such changes must engage all land-use stakeholders, must involve educational, training and
extension programmes and must embrace the multidisciplinarity required for effective soil
conservation and management.



Limited prospects for increasing overall land area

under crop production, along with declining yield of
major food crops in many parts of the world, raise concerns about the capacity to feed a world population expected to exceed 75 billion by 2020 (Mosier & Kroeze
2000). Furthermore, widespread decline of soil fertility also raises questions about the sustainability of
current agricultural production levels, maintenance of
animal health through soil-mediated supply of good
herbage and the wider range of ecosystem goods and
services that soils must provide. The soil resource base
is the critical component of agro-ecosystems, and
must be managed sustainably to safeguard food
security. Future strategies for increasing agricultural
productivity must focus on more efcient use of soil
resources. Integrated soil management (ISM) encompasses many of the principles required to achieve

ISM involves a combined strategy of effective nutrient,

crop, water, soil and land management (Fig. 1) for
sustainable agricultural production and other forms of
land use. Sustainable agriculture requires conservation
of land and water, as well as plant and animal genetic
resources, it does not degrade the environment, and is
economically viable and socially acceptable (Sakai
2009). It can be tailored to the characteristics of site
and soil and, importantly, to environmental, economic
and social constraints faced by farmers.

Email: ken.killham@remedios.uk.com

Global perspective
The doubling of global food demand projected for the
next 50 years (Beddington 2009) poses a challenge for
sustainability of food production and the environment.
The greatest requirement for soil management technologies to best use soil and water resources is in
the arid and semi-arid developing world, including

K. K I L L H A M




Soil tillage


Fig. 1. ISM and its components.

sub-Saharan Africa as well as large parts of India,

Central Asia and north-eastern Brazil (Lal 2000).
Such technologies should enhance soil structure, improve nutrient use efciency, conserve valuable soil
and water resources, improve water use efciency
and, where possible, increase cropping intensity (Lal
2000). Although ISM, incorporating these aims, offers
a way ahead, a real shift towards this is critically
dependent on policy conditions, as well as educational
and cultural changes to translate policy into action
(Kauffman et al. 2000). This will apply to most
developing areas.
Minimization/avoidance of soil degradation and
environmental pollution
Soil and fertility loss worldwide are caused by
salinization, desertication and soil mismanagement.
Continued loss of productive land along with vital,
stabilizing, soil organic matter in developing countries
such as Pakistan is linked to the separation of fertility
management and rainwater conservation practices
(Shaheen et al. 2009). A more effective future direction is offered by ISM, where these issues are dealt
with in a combined strategy. Lal (2000) identied soilspecic technologies for such a combined strategy
including structural enhancement, integrated nutrient
management/recycling, residue management/incorporation/mulching, conservation/minimum tillage and
improved water capture/recycling/irrigation. Success
of conservation/minimum tillage in increasing soil
organic matter, with consequent improvement in fertility and erosion control, has been reported for
Brazilian agriculture (Machado & Silva 2001). Other
established technologies such as contour ploughing/
physical barriers across slopes and cover cropping are

also useful in stabilizing soil vulnerable to erosion,

particularly in arid and semi-arid areas.
A range of agroforestry (silvopastoral and silvoarable) approaches protect against erosion and conservation of the soil resource, through mechanisms
such as more effective rooting patterns to stabilize
soil and access water, riparian zones, residue incorporation and green manuring with legume residues.
Agroforestry-mediated soil and water conservation
with associated erosion control has proved successful
in Himalayan India using leguminous (Leucaena) and
non-leguminous (Eucalyptus) trees (Narain et al.
Some technologies for protection against soil
erosion are also effective in reducing environmental
pollution (gaseous and waterborne) resulting from
agriculture and reect multiple gains from ISM. This
applies to riparian strips, effective management of
residues with varying carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratios,
cover cropping and minimum tillage (Dinnes et al.
2002). It also applies to agroforestry through nutrient
interception at different rooting depths of arable crops
and trees, as well as through mulching of tree litter.
Manipulation of the soil biota for sustainable
Chemical control of soil biota has long been practised using pesticides. More interestingly, rates of key
below-ground processes have been partially managed
with selective inhibitors. Examples include inhibitors
to control urea hydrolysis and nitrication (Zaman
et al. 2009), while slow release fertilizers such as
sulphur or polyolen-coated ureas retard microbiological activity, better marrying nutrient supply to crop
Although legume inoculation for enhancing nitrogen
(N2)xation has been successful (mainly in tropical
latitudes) and inoculation programmes with mycorrrhizal fungi and phosphate-solubilizing microorganisms have encountered limited success (Siddiqui
et al. 2008), widespread biofertilization with microbial
inocula is yet to be realized. For consistently successful microbial inoculation, favourable edaphic conditions (resulting from ISM) are required at inoculum
delivery and establishment.
Whether exploiting indigenous populations or introduced inocula, biocontrol suffers from inconsistent
eld performance but has consistently succeeded in
the protected and controlled connes of glasshouses.
However, biocontrol forms a critical part of a systems
approach to integrated, sustainable soil pest management, to combat insecticide-resistant pests and minimize pesticide use (Bale et al. 2008). Successful,

Integrated soil management and sustainability

consistent biocontrol beyond the glasshouse requires
research to understand the biology/ecology of pest/
control agent/soil interaction so that soil management
underpins this interaction.
Integrated weed control and control under soil
conservation tillage
Sustainable agriculture requires control of pests and
weeds with minimum input of chemical pesticides,
which sometimes have unfortunate and environmentally damaging, non-target effects. Researching for
viable alternatives to chemical control is also driven
by issues of food safety and quality.
Integrated weed management, like ISM, involves
alternative control measures. These include cultural,
genetic, mechanical, biological and chemical means of
weed control, none of which alone provide acceptable
levels of control, but if implemented in some systematic strategy, adequate control is achieved (Swanton
et al. 2008).
Integrated weed management for conservation
tillage systems, well documented in Australian agriculture (Swanton et al. 2008), for example, aims to
minimize environmental impacts of crop production,
while maintaining effective weed control and protability, but poses the greatest weed control challenge.
Reduced herbicide application, rotary hoeing, interrow cultivation and more advanced weeding techniques (e.g. intra-row hoeing) form components of
alternative weed control and strongly complement/
parallel ISM. Traditional techniques for weed and
other pest control, such as soil solarization, are also
being revisited with a view to sustainable, ISM.
Soil use as determined by land capability for agriculture
Managing soil for land-use capability is pivotal for
ISM. Soil surveys have been carried out in many parts
of the world to classify soil for land-use (particularly
agricultural) capability, but this is frequently ignored
or over-ridden in land-use decision-making by other
There are several different approaches for assessing
land-use capability, each one having been developed
for a particular part of the world. Many European systems are derived from approaches pioneered in North
America. Assessment of land capability for agriculture is therefore well proven, and assessment is based
on relationships between cropping and physical
factors of soil, topography and climate.
Soil fertility enhancement and maintenance
ISM aims to combine organic and inorganic nutrients
optimally for the enhancement/maintenance of soil fertility. This is not a new concept and there are obvious

advantages to it, particularly in tropical latitudes

where not only are nutrients supplied through mineralization from organic amendments, but there are also
benets from the activation of microbial biomass by
an organic energy source. Organic amendments also
supply a precursor to soil organic matter, reducing soil
phosphorus (P) sorption (but increasing cationic
nutrient retention) and enhancing fertility. With the
expense of inorganic fertilizers, especially in developing countries, there is an economic and soil fertility
argument to combined use of inorganic and organic
fertilizers. Organic sources, providing bound nitrogen
(N), P and sulphur (S), as well as some potassium (K),
include composted and non-composted animal and
crop residues, as well as sewage sludge (assuming
acceptable metal concentrations). For both animal
and human wastes, pathogens must be appropriately
managed. However, regular organic amendments
should translate to long-term improvements in crop
yields as soil organic matter levels increase and soil
becomes more fertile and structurally stable. Lal
(2004) highlighted the important link between restoring diminished organic matter of degraded soils,
and estimated that an increase of 1 tonne (t) of soil
carbon in degraded cropland may increase yield by
2040 kg/ha for wheat, 1020 kg/ha for maize and
051 kg/ha for cowpea.
Adopting integrated soil fertility management
(ISFM) requires policy and cultural changes in much
of the developing world especially holders of small
farms on marginal land, who rarely practise soil
fertility management. ISFM involves judicious use of
farmyard manures, crop residues, animal dung, green
manures and oil cakes combined with inorganic
fertilization, but this type of farming is not widespread.
Although ISM may offer sustainability through
long-term soil fertility, there are many developmentperpetuated myths about the adverse effects of inorganic fertilizers and benecial effects of organic
amendments requiring correction so that effective
strategies are taken forward, particularly in subSaharan Africa (Vanlauwe & Giller 2006).
Precision farming
Precision farming offers much of the enabling science
needed to deliver ISM with the optimal use of soil,
water and nutrient resources for efcient production
and minimal environmental pollution. Precision farming with global positioning satellites (GPS) comprises
remote sensing to locate ground position and geographic information systems (GIS) to store ground
information for farming (Sylvester-Bradley et al.
1999). It prescribes spatially, at appropriate scale,
practices such as fertilization (the main practice under
precision farming) cultivation/tillage, sowing and
weeding using spatially variable soil/crop data.

K. K I L L H A M

Despite benets of precision farming, there are obvious economic and social constraints to its adoption
in developing countries, restricting it to large-scale,
commercial farms. It may be, however, that some
models of precision farming, particularly communitybased models with associated learning groups of
farmers and companies (Shibusawa 2004), can be
applied to smaller-scale farms.
Soil in relation to land reclamation
Because ISM combines improvement of the supply of
available soil water, restoring and improving soil
fertility with organic and inorganic nutrient management and soil conservation techniques, it offers great
potential for reclamation of structurally and chemically degraded soils, particularly in arid and semi-arid
zones (Kauffman et al. 2000).
Crop productivity loss due to soil degradation
(from erosion) is estimated at 18 million tonnes of
food staples per year at 1990 yield levels for subSaharan Africa and 272 million tonnes worldwide at
1996 production levels (Lal 2000). This may represent
a yield loss at the landscape level or even total crop
failure at the farm level. Much soil structural integrity
comes from organic matter, including the living
fraction (soil microbial biomass). The mining of soil
organic matter through agriculture is common and
threatens structural integrity, particularly in tropical
soils (Lal 2004), as organic matter mediates short term
and more persistent binding. Loss of soil structure can
also occur through slaking and dispersion, often
linked to intensive cultivation (Lal 2008), causing compaction and vital loss of the pore size distribution
needed to maintain soil fertility. Because of these
different processes, mechanisms of soil structural
collapse and degradation vary climatically and from
one soil type to another.
Technologies that enhance soil structure (residue
incorporation and mulching, soil conditioning, manuring and some forms of agroforestry) and conserve
soil (cover cropping, contour ploughing, riparian
zones, minimum tillage and efcient/appropriate irrigation) have to be selected on a soil-/site-specic basis
but offer ISM tools of soil restoration from physical
degradation worldwide.

pesticides and from diffuse atmospheric pollutants

being ubiquitous.
Remediation of contaminated land, along with
food production, requires ISM where the emphasis is
on sustainability rather than short-term gains. Bioremediation refers to the application of biodegradative processes to remove/detoxify contaminants found
in water, soil or sediments. It can offer a cost-effective
alternative to more traditional dig and dump approaches and frequently offers sustainable solutions to
the restoration of contaminated land, reducing landlling and harnessing the inherent capacity of soil for
degrading and immobilizing many contaminants, and
restoring ecosystem function/health. Bioremediation
also offers the prospects of soil reuse, assuming that
regulatory end-points are reached. Both in situ and
ex situ bioremediation require integrated management
of soil and water (this may be groundwater, surface
and soil water depending on site and type of bioremediation) resource, with issues of nutrient status/
supply and oxygenation being critical for optimal
remediation (Piotrowski et al. 2006).
Indicators for monitoring soil
Sustainable soil use requires robust indicators to
monitor changes in soil quality/health. Recent research to identify which indicators are most suitable
points to biological properties, as they best diagnose
soil health and complement existing and well understood physicochemical properties.
A suite of indicators identied by Ritz et al. (2009)
comprises molecular ngerprinting techniques as well
as more traditional enzymatic- and organism-based
approaches, addressing the major biological trophic
levels that mediate soil function. Measurement of
these indicators requires standard operating procedures and assessment of their sensitivity, capacity to
discriminate between soil and land-use combinations,
as well as ecological/agroecological relevance.
While focusing on current aspects, it is useful to
consider how ISM may develop in future both with
policy/advisory support and with technological advances.

Remediation of contaminated soil

Although estimates of chemically contaminated
(organic contaminants and/or metals) land vary with
denition and methods of analysis, and a global gure
is unknown, the extent is vast. Estimates of chemically
contaminated land in England and Wales alone range
from 50 000 to 200 000 ha (EA 2000). While the
heaviest chemical contamination is associated with
long histories of industrial development, the problem
is worldwide, with contamination from persistent

Uptake of ISM
Current policy approaches in many developing
countries may prevent the transition to ISM (Koning
et al. 2001). The time lags involved in adopting new
technologies, in applying them to local conditions,
and in harvesting the benets of soil fertility investments ideally call for dual support of agricultural incomes and educational/extension/advisory
programmes through policy change. The changes

Integrated soil management and sustainability

required for realizing the benets of ISM have been
hampered in West Africa, for example, by socioeconomic factors. These include insecure land-use
rights, political instability, bureaucratic culture,
disproportionate investment in research/extension
towards export crops rather than staples, expense of
infrastructural improvements and established farming
attitudes based on long fallow and nomadic pastoral
agriculture. These are not conducive to agricultural
intensication (Koning et al. 2001) or to the development of effective decision support tools.
Progress in ISM in developing countries and the
challenges facing further adoption in sub-Saharan
Africa, India, Central Asian countries, north-eastern
Brazil and other semi-arid regions of the developing
world are reviewed by Lal (2000).
Global movement towards ISM is likely to be
driven by the food and environmental policies of developed and developing countries, as well as associated
socio-economic (including educational) programmes
introduced to facilitate such policies.
New technologies for soil improvement
There is considerable scope for manipulation of the
soilplantmicrobe system for agricultural production, with new knowledge meeting the challenges of
nutrient deciencies, pests and diseases, and the need
for increasing global food production in an environmentally sustainable manner (Lambers et al. 2009).
Soil biotechnological advances
Control of soil processes and pests by chemical means
is reasonably well established, although the number of
process targets and consistency of control are limited.
There is increasing scope to engineer the crop root
soil interface for this type of control, either through
inoculation or changing the nature of the crop.
Rhizosphere engineering may involve genetic modication or other biotechnological approaches. The
latter can be achieved, for example, by exploiting the
mycorrhizal symbiosis between plants and certain
root colonizing fungi. The arbuscular mycorrhizal
(AM) symbiosis, involving most crop plants, inhibits
certain disease causing pathogens, although mechanisms are poorly understood (Harrier & Watson 2004).
Unfortunately, routine inoculum production/delivery
is far from achievable due to cultural demands of AM
Genetic manipulation may involve modifying
microbial inocula or crop modication. For the latter,
manipulation of rhizosphere C ow offers control of
plant disease (Jones et al. 2009) by inhibition of pathogens or by stimulation of antagonists (mainly bacteria). Genetic modication of microbial inocula may
target enhancing mechanisms of antagonizing crop
pathogens, or may be aimed at increasing inoculum
establishment potential.

Consistent control of some plant diseases may best

be realized through engineering of the plant itself.
Pardo-Lopez et al. (2009) review strategies to improve
the activity of insecticidal toxins from Bacillus
thuringiensis by using this bacterium and the plant as
delivery vehicles as well as preventing the development of resistance.
Many microbial functions linked to soil fertility are
controlled by signals from plants and other microbes.
Although a rapidly emerging area of science with
research still needed, it presents a promising approach
for manipulating below ground processes, either
through plant engineering to produce signals (or
mimics) or engineering of microbial inocula. Some
plants, including economically important legumes,
produce halogenated furanones, mimics of microbial
signals and which appear to regulate important
microbial processes in the rhizosphere (Bauer &
Robinson 2002).
Biotechnological advances will drive forward (bio)remediation. Again, this may involve genetic engineering, but will often involve better exploitation of
natural systems. For example, the mycorrhizosphere
around fungalroot associations formed by most
plants offers great potential. Ectomycorrhizal associations involving trees are particularly promising as
this zone represents a bioreactor for breakdown of
organic pollutants (Joner & Leyval 2003), as well as
metal immobilization/uptake. The extent of ectomycorrhizal root systems may enable slow, but sustainable, in situ bioremediation to considerable depths.
Although this review focuses on soil, great biotechnological advances are likely to come from plant
breeding, which should be encouraged to continue
introducing increasingly nutrient- (and water-) efcient crops to facilitate the greatest yields from
nutrient inputs to soils, and species better adapted to
extreme conditions.
Composting/manuring/fermentation technologies
Incorporation of organic residues and manures is the
key to many ISM strategies. These inputs are often
composted to ensure highest compatibility with growing crops. Composting, manuring and fermentation
technologies have advanced considerably in the last
few decades and now offer controllable preparation of
many types of organic materials for soil incorporation. A great advantage of composting for ISM is
operation at a wide range of scales and processing of
diverse mixtures of ligno-cellulosic plant waste with
material of lower C:N ratio such as animal wastes or
green manures (e.g. legume residues) (Insam et al.
As composting technologies continue to be
adopted, simple, cheap indicators of compost maturity/stability are becoming commercially available
(Wu et al. 2000).

K. K I L L H A M

Advances in precision farming

Currently, precision farming is mainly restricted to
large-scale, high-budget farming, as well as to the use
of sensor-assisted systems in horticulture. However, it
can potentially assist in the efcient application of
ISM at a greater range of scales, in forestry and horticulture as well as agriculture, if the access barriers of
cost and ease of use are progressively reduced. Furthermore, precision farming focuses on site-specic application of fertilizers, with the resulting cost and
associated advantages being relatively modest. The
control of weeds, insect pests and soil-borne plant
diseases has received less attention. Precision farming
will increase considerably in importance when these
aspects are integrated, along with reduced environmental pollution (Auernhammer 2001).
Soil degradation prediction and control
As soil erosion continues to cause widespread loss
of soil/soil fertility across the world, and affect water
quality through inputs of transported sediments, nutrients and pesticides/pesticide residues, areas prone to
erosion need to be identied so that appropriate conservation measures are introduced.
Conventional prediction of soil erosion based on
eld soil surveys to generate erosion maps is expensive
or unrealistic for many developing countries. Soil and
environmental data are fed into the Universal Soil
Loss equation (USLE), but data are sparse and/or
uncertain. Limited variable, fuzzy logic models offer
a promising way forward at a fraction of the cost of
traditional, eld-based approaches. These models are
reasonably good predictors, and partly based on satellite measurable parameters such as slope angle and
land use.
Where structural integrity is being lost through the
reduction in soil organic matter associated with intensive cultivation, a greater understanding of critical
thresholds for this is needed, along with the most
effective ISM strategies for maintenance and restoration of soil organic pools (particularly those responsible for structural stability).
To ensure effective application of ISM, simple tests
of soil structure have been developed so that farmers
can monitor soil structure in the eld with minimal
expertise/equipment (Low 1954).

16 08 Gt C/year, mainly in the tropics (Smith

Agriculture contributes a major part of greenhouse
gas (GHG) emissions. For example, arable lands
provide c. 020 of the global N2O output of 13
16 megatonne (Mt)/year (Bouwman 1996), through
denitrication and nitrication. Therefore, as agricultural systems represent an organic matter reservoir
and provide sources and sinks of the GHGs carbon
dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide
(N2O), there is considerable scope for the application
of ISM (including composting technologies) in controlling C-sequestration/loss and GHG uxes from
Controls of C-sequestration and GHG emission are
reasonably well established, and ISM strategies to
achieve sequestration and acceptable balance of GHG
emission may involve practices, such as minimum
tillage, optimal fertilizer/manuring regimes, water and
residual nutrient management, residue incorporation
and cover cropping. It may also involve changing
cropping practices (even shifting from arable to forest
crops) to systems favouring C-sequestration, although
economic incentives may be required.
Despite knowledge of controls of soil C-sequestration and GHG emission, ISM for minimizing environmental change is complex. Management to lower
uxes of one GHG may well increase those of
another. Sequestering more C will also impact on
GHG emissions and vice versa. Achieving the best
compromise by weighting the strength of GHG
against uxes, while achieving reasonable C-sequestration, will require knowledge of which soils are
conducive to different management, use of land-use
and climate change models for achieving a globally
effective strategy (Smith 2008) and long-term monitoring of soil organic matter status.
Any soil strategy to increase C-sequestration and
control GHG emission must not only include agricultural and forest soils, where capacity for additional
C-sequestration is limited, but also semi-natural and
natural systems, including many peatland systems
where much global C is stored (Freibauer et al. 2004).
Where ISM aims to minimize the environmental impact of agriculture, including climate change, policy
shifts (and adoption of associated educational/advisory programmes) will be needed to change farming
rewards across the world towards more sustainable
land use.

ISM for addressing climate change

Soil management is the key to carbon (C)-sequestration (Liu et al. 2006), with soils containing twice as
much C as the atmosphere, and the sink capacity
of the worlds agricultural and degraded soil being
050066 of the historic C loss through cultivation
and disturbance. The latter gure has been estimated
at 4090 gigatonne (Gt) C, with current rates of loss of

Globally accepted and appropriate soil indicators

As possible indicators are identied for soil monitoring to ensure sustainable management (Ritz et al.
2009); their validity in providing robust agro-ecologically relevant data for policy-makers must be assessed.
Although some indicators should be specic to
national/regional monitoring, a number should be

Integrated soil management and sustainability

internationally robust and provide a global perspective. Furthermore, advanced spatial methods of monitoring will be required to assess changes in soil health/
quality with changing land use. This is particularly
true for countries such as China with the challenge of
a considerable land area under management (Sun
et al. 2003).

ISM and the challenge of scale-up

Research into technologies underpinning ISM should
be given high priority, but research should also address scale-up so that technologies are appropriate
across the range of scales required. Satellite data and
fuzzy logic models to predict areas of soil erosion
facilitate this, as soil survey maps derived from other
data sets do, such as Digital Terrain Models and geological data (Mayr & Palmer 2006). In reality, many
potential benets associated with ISM cannot be
realized without addressing scale-up, with the need
for associated links to industry (to deliver commercially available technology/infrastructure) and

policy-makers (Noordin et al. 2007), as well as to

This review has introduced the main concepts behind
ISM and the ways in which it currently operates, and
has suggested scope for future technological development. It has also highlighted the potential of ISM to
address the challenge of meeting the increasing
demands of the worlds burgeoning population, while
maintaining sustainable agro-ecosystems from longterm soil fertility, environmental and socio-economic
perspectives. This will only be realized with changes to
policy, governance and funding worldwide to conserve and manage the soil resource, including restoration of already degraded systems, and prioritizing
research to ensure continued delivery of new soil
technologies. Such changes must engage all land-use
stakeholders, involve educational and training/extension programmes as well as embrace the multidisciplinarity required for effective soil conservation and

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