Challenges for Sustainable Soil Management – A Stocktake

Agroscope Science No. 117, 2021

The preservation of soil fertility and multiple soil functions faces various challenges both in Switzerland and throughout Europe. A survey carried out in Switzerland among people from practice, government agencies and research highlights problems and possible solutions.

As part of the European Joint Programme SOIL (EJP SOIL) research programme, 32 persons from agricultural practice, associations, extension, education, government agencies and research were surveyed concerning different ‘soil challenges’1. Respondents assessed the relevance of the different ‘soil challenges’ as well as offering ideas and concrete solutions for improving the current situation.

A wide range of soil-management challenges

Respondents were largely in agreement that the greatest challenges facing the sustainable agricultural use of soil in Switzerland are compaction, sealing, erosion, loss of soil organic carbon, loss of biological activity and diversity, and soil contamination (Fig. 1). The poor state of drainage systems as well as qualitatively insufficient soil improvements and recultivations were also seen as relevant. Some of these soil challenges are already being tackled by current or planned policy measures and are the subject of past or in-progress research activities, as illustrated in Table 1. With other soil challenges, either the level of knowledge, consideration in active policies or both is still low at present.

Figure 1: Respondents’ rating of the importance of the various ‘soil challenges’

Table 1: Summary of the importance of the ‘soil challenges’, the corresponding knowledge base and their consideration in policy measures

Approaches to improving agricultural soil protection

Numerous approaches were mentioned for enhancing the development, dissemination and application of knowledge about sustainable soil management. A selection of relatively common suggestions includes:

  • Communication, cooperation and networking in the agricultural knowledge system on the topics ‘soil protection’ and ‘sustainable soil management options’ should be improved. This will enable the increased availability of existing and new knowledge for farmers, extension workers and policy makers.
  • Participatory approaches to research (e.g. collaboration between practitioners, extension workers and researchers) can improve the system-orientedness of the research questions and the practical applicability of research findings.  
  • Agricultural education and training should take increasing account of soil-related topics. In particular, digital knowledge platforms could support autonomous learning.
  • Operational groups and demonstration activities are seen as effective methods for disseminating knowledge about soil management and should be encouraged.
  • Concrete, site-specific guidelines and modified financial incentives could promote the application of sustainable soil management practices.

Tasks for research

There is a need for widely accepted, easily applicable methods for recording and assessing soil quality, soil functions, and the ecosystem services provided by soils. Such methods are also needed to evaluate and optimise existing and new cropping practices and their impact on the soil and the environment. Moreover, new findings on the spatial distribution and significance of the most important ‘soil challenges’ – in particular, compaction and loss of soil organic carbon – are essential.

1 The umbrella term ‘soil challenge’ is used within the context of EJP SOIL, and encapsulates the various challenges for the preservation and promotion of soil fertility, soil functions and the ecosystem services provided by soils. The soil challenges are listed in Table 1.


  • The sustainable management of Swiss soils faces a wide variety of challenges. According to our survey, the most important of these are compaction, sealing, erosion, loss of soil organic carbon, loss of biological activity and diversity, and contamination.
  • The respondents – practitioners, scientists and policy-makers – are aware of the different problems and challenges. Some of these challenges have already been addressed, while for others there are no measures yet in place.  
  • The respondents made numerous suggestions for encouraging the acquisition, dissemination and application of knowledge about sustainable soil management.
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