Action Synopsis: Soil Fertility About Actions

Reduce fertilizer, pesticide or herbicide use generally

How is the evidence assessed?
  • Effectiveness
  • Certainty
  • Harms

Study locations

Key messages

Biodiversity: Two site comparison studies from Italy and Pakistan (one also replicated) found a higher diversity of soil invertebrates and microorganisms in low-input systems.

Nutrient loss: One study from Canada found lower nutrient levels and yields in low-input systems.

SOIL TYPES COVERED: coarse sandy, loam, sandy-loam, and silt.


About key messages

Key messages provide a descriptive index to studies we have found that test this intervention.

Studies are not directly comparable or of equal value. When making decisions based on this evidence, you should consider factors such as study size, study design, reported metrics and relevance of the study to your situation, rather than simply counting the number of studies that support a particular interpretation.

Supporting evidence from individual studies

  1. A replicated experiment in 2001-2006 on loamy soil in Saskatchewan, Canada (Malhi et al. 2009) found less nitrate (74 kg N/ha) and phosphorus (19 kg P/ha) in soil under organic inputs than under high or reduced inputs (85 kg N/ha, 24 kg P/ha respectively). Nitrate was usually higher in treatments with fewer crop types. Lower yields were recorded in organic compared to high or reduced input treatments (amounts not specified). Three input (tillage/management) levels (organic, reduced, high) were replicated four times. Within these input levels were three crop diversities: low (fallow/wheat Triticum aestivum/oilseed Brassica juncea); cereal (wheat / mustard Brassica juncea or canola Brassica napus/ lentil Len culinaris rotations; or grain (perennial forage crop (sweet clover Melilotus officinalis, pea Pisum sativum, flax Linum usitatissimum or alfalfa Medicago sativa)/ barley Hordeum vulgare) rotations. Within these were six crop phases, rotating the above species with green manure and fallow phases, which were tested in 40 x 12.8 m plots. Fertilizers and pesticides were not applied to the organic treatment. Crop rotations were six years long. Each year, two soil samples were taken from each crop phase (with a third also taken in 2006) to measure nitrate-N, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus.

    Study and other actions tested
  2. A site comparison study in 2007-2009 on silt soils in Faisalabad, Pakistan (Rana et al. 2010) found a higher number of species of large soil invertebrates in low input fields (79 species) compared to high input fields (61 species). Ten acres of sugarcane Saccharum sp. crop were selected in areas using either low chemical input cultivation or high chemical input cultivation (nitrogen (70 kg/acre), phosphorus (50 kg/acre), potassium (70-80 kg/acre), calcium (7 kg/acre), sulphur (12 kg/acre), magnesium (12 kg/acre) and organic fertilizers (2400-3200 kg/acre)), or low chemical input cultivation (using anything less than the high chemical input treatment). Soil samples were taken from three randomly selected areas within 1 acre fields in each system: one on the edge of the field, one under the shade of scrub or trees and one within the field. Soil invertebrates were identified to species.

    Study and other actions tested
  3. A replicated site comparison study, in spring 2008 across loam, sandy-loam and coarse sandy soils in Salerno district, Italy (Bonanomi et al. 2011) found that the functional diversity of soil microorganisms was 18% lower functional microbial diversity and 14% lower bacterial species richness, as well as 24% lower organic carbon, compared to the low-input systems. Broad differences in soil microbial community properties were found between farms classified as high-input, intensive, and low-input systems. The high-input systems were described as intensive cultivation systems under plastic cover, while low-input systems were described as orchards. Soil samples were taken from three plastic tunnels in each high-input system and from one area of orchard in each low-input system, then analysed for biochemical and biological properties in the laboratory.

    Study and other actions tested
Please cite as:

Key, G., Whitfield, M., Dicks, L.V., Sutherland, W.J. & Bardgett, R.D. (2020) Enhancing Soil Fertility. Pages 613-634 in: W.J. Sutherland, L.V. Dicks, S.O. Petrovan & R.K. Smith (eds) What Works in Conservation 2020. Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, UK.


Where has this evidence come from?

List of journals searched by synopsis

All the journals searched for all synopses

Soil Fertility

This Action forms part of the Action Synopsis:

Soil Fertility
What Works 2021 cover

What Works in Conservation

What Works in Conservation provides expert assessments of the effectiveness of actions, based on summarised evidence, in synopses. Subjects covered so far include amphibians, birds, mammals, forests, peatland and control of freshwater invasive species. More are in progress.

More about What Works in Conservation

Download free PDF or purchase
The Conservation Evidence Journal

The Conservation Evidence Journal

An online, free to publish in, open-access journal publishing results from research and projects that test the effectiveness of conservation actions.

Read the latest volume: Volume 21

Go to the CE Journal

Discover more on our blog

Our blog contains the latest news and updates from the Conservation Evidence team, the Conservation Evidence Journal, and our global partners in evidence-based conservation.

Who uses Conservation Evidence?

Meet some of the evidence champions

Endangered Landscape ProgrammeRed List Champion - Arc Kent Wildlife Trust The Rufford Foundation Save the Frogs - Ghana Mauritian Wildlife Supporting Conservation Leaders
Sustainability Dashboard National Biodiversity Network Frog Life The international journey of Conservation - Oryx Cool Farm Alliance UNEP AWFA Bat Conservation InternationalPeople trust for endangered species Vincet Wildlife Trust