Special Issue "Enhancing Soil Health to Mitigate Soil Degradation"


A special issue of Sustainability (ISSN 2071-1050). This special issue belongs to the section "Sustainable Agriculture, Food and Wildlife".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (1 November 2014)

Special Issue Editor

Guest Editor
Dr. Douglas L. Karlen
National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, Agricultural Research Service, 2110 University Boulevard, Ames, IA 50011-3120, USA
E-Mail: doug.karlen@ars.usda.gov
Phone: +1-515-294-3336
Fax: +1-515-294-8125
Interests: soil quality; soil health; soil security; sustainable bioenergy feedstock production and logistics; management of agricultural landscapes; sustainable agriculture in general

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

Five of the top ten problems facing humanity (http://cnst.rice.edu/content.aspx?id=246) over the next 50 years (food, water, energy, environment and poverty) are directly related to the health of soil resources. Several different factors, including: (a) excessive tillage; (b) inappropriate crop rotations; (c) excessive grazing or crop residue removal; (d) deforestation; (e) mining and/or fracking; and (f) construction or urban sprawl, have contributed to the global problem of soil degradation. Understanding and implementing sustainable agricultural and land management practices that improve soil health is essential for mitigating and reversing these trends, if we are to successfully meet the needs of more than 9.5 billion people who will be sharing our fragile planet by the middle of the 21st century.

The overall focus for this special issue will be on agricultural factors contributing to soil degradation and suggested strategies for mitigating and reversing those trends. The discussion will be anchored by invited contributions reflecting perspectives from Africa, Australia, China, Eastern Europe, India, Latin America, North America, Russia, and Western Europe. Voluntary contributions will be evaluated, and if well written and able to pass a rigorous peer review, will be incorporated into the issue to provide a global perspective on soil degradation and strategies to mitigate its devastating effects.

This special issue will draw upon published literature addressing soil quality and/or soil health, soil and crop management strategies to mitigate soil degradation, and future research needs and strategies that will steadily improve the fragile layer that lies between us and starvation. Your participation and contributions to this important endeavor are welcomed and encouraged.

Dr. Douglas L. Karlen
Guest Editor

Following is a list of “reference papers” that are relevant for the SI topic

1.     Karlen, D.L.; Mausbach, M.J.; Doran, J.W.; Cline, R.G.; Harris, R.F.; Schuman, G.E. Soil quality: A concept, definition, and framework for evaluation. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 1997, 61, 4–10.
2.     Karlen, D.L.; Andrews, S.S.; Doran, J.W. Soil Quality: Current Concepts and Applications. Adv. Agron. 2001, 74, 1–40.
3.     Karlen, D.L.; Ditzler, C.A.; Andrews, S.S. Soil quality: why and how? Geoderma 2003, 114, 145–156.
4.     Andrews, S.S.; Flora, C.B.; Mitchell, J.P.; Karlen, D.L. Growers’ perceptions and acceptance of soil quality indices. Geoderma 2003, 114, 187–213.
5.     Karlen, D.L.; Andrews, S.S.; Weinhold, B.J.; Doran, J.W. Soil quality: Humankind’s foundation for survival. J. Soil Water Conserv. 2003, 58, 171–179.
6.     Andrews, S.S.; Karlen, D.L.; Cambardella, C.A. The soil management assessment framework: A quantitative soil quality evaluation method. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 2004, 68, 1945–1962.
7.     Zobeck, T.M.; Halvorson, A.D.; Wienhold, B.J.; Acosta-Martinez, V.; Karlen, D.L. Comparison of two soil quality indexes to evaluate cropping systems in northern Colorado. J. Soil Water Conserv. 2008, 63, 329–338.
8.     Wienhold, B.J.; Andrews, S.S.; Kuykendall, H.; Karlen, D.L. Recent advances in soil quality assessment in the United States. J. Indian Soc. Soil Sci. 2008, 56, 237–246.
9.     Fernandez-Ugale, O.; Virto, I.; Bescansa, P.; Imaz, M.J.; Enrique, A.; Karlen, D.L. No-tillage improvement of soil physical quality in calcareous, degradation-prone, semiarid soils. Soil Tillage Res. 2009, 106, 29–35.
10.   Imaz, M.J.; Virto, I.; Bescansa, P.; Enrique, A.; Fernandez-Ugalde, O.; Karlen, D.L. Soil quality indicator response to tillage and residue management on semi-arid Mediterranean cropland. Soil Tillage Res. 2010, 107, 17–25.
11.   Wilhelm, W.W.; Hess, J.R.; Karlen, D.L.; Johnson, J.M.F.; Muth, D.J.; Baker, J.M.; Gollany, H.T.; Novak, J.M.; Stott, D.E.; Varvel, G.E. Balancing Limiting factors and economic drivers for sustainable Midwest agricultural residue feedstock supplies. Ind. Biotech. 2010, 6, 271–287.
12.   Karlen, D.L.; Dinnes, D.L.; Singer. J.W. Midwest Soil and Water Conservation: Past, Present and Future. In Soil and Water Conservation Advances in the US: Past Efforts—Future Outlook; Zobeck, T.M., Schillinger, W.F., Ed.; United State Department of Agriculture: Washington, DC, USA, 2010; pp. 131–162.
13.   Herrick, J.E.; Brown, J.R.; Bestelmeyer, B.T.; Andrews, S.S.; Baldi, G.; Davies, J.; Duniway, M.; Havstad, K.M.; Karl, J.; Karlen, D.L.; Peters, D.P.C.; Quinton, J.N.; Riginos, C.; Shaver, P.L.; Steinaker, D.; Twomlow, S. Revolutionary land use change in the 21st century: Is (Rangeland) science relevant? Rangel. Ecol. Manag. 2012, 65, 590–598.
14.   Stott, D.E.; Karlen, D.L.; Cambardella, C.A.; Harmel, R.D. A soil quality and metabolic activity assessment after 57 years of agricultural management. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 2013, 77, 903–913.
15.   Karlen, D.L.; Kovar, J.L.; Cambardella, C.A.; Colvin, T.S. Thirty-year tillage effects on crop yield and soil fertility indicators. Soil Tillage Res. 2013, 130, 24–41.


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Submitted manuscripts should not have been published previously, nor be under consideration for publication elsewhere (except conference proceedings papers). All manuscripts are refereed through a peer-review process. A guide for authors and other relevant information for submission of manuscripts is available on the Instructions for Authors page. Sustainability is an international peer-reviewed Open Access monthly journal published by MDPI.

Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in this open access journal is 1200 CHF (Swiss Francs).


  • soil resource management
  • soil health
  • soil quality
  • soil security
  • sustainable agriculture
  • soil degradation
  • landscape management
  • conservation agriculture
  • visual soil assessment

Published Papers (11 papers)

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p. 3528-3570
by , , , , , , , , ,  and
Sustainability 2015, 7(4), 3528-3570; doi:10.3390/su7043528
Received: 16 November 2014 / Revised: 9 February 2015 / Accepted: 27 February 2015 / Published: 25 March 2015
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(This article belongs to the Special Issue Enhancing Soil Health to Mitigate Soil Degradation)
p. 2936-2960
by ,  and
Sustainability 2015, 7(3), 2936-2960; doi:10.3390/su7032936
Received: 14 November 2014 / Revised: 23 February 2015 / Accepted: 27 February 2015 / Published: 11 March 2015
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(This article belongs to the Special Issue Enhancing Soil Health to Mitigate Soil Degradation)
p. 2322-2337
by ,  and
Sustainability 2015, 7(3), 2322-2337; doi:10.3390/su7032322
Received: 12 January 2015 / Revised: 11 February 2015 / Accepted: 15 February 2015 / Published: 27 February 2015
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(This article belongs to the Special Issue Enhancing Soil Health to Mitigate Soil Degradation)
p. 2213-2242
by , , , , ,  and
Sustainability 2015, 7(2), 2213-2242; doi:10.3390/su7022213
Received: 19 November 2014 / Revised: 17 January 2015 / Accepted: 10 February 2015 / Published: 17 February 2015
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(This article belongs to the Special Issue Enhancing Soil Health to Mitigate Soil Degradation)
p. 2161-2188
by , , ,  and
Sustainability 2015, 7(2), 2161-2188; doi:10.3390/su7022161
Received: 14 December 2014 / Revised: 11 February 2015 / Accepted: 12 February 2015 / Published: 16 February 2015
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(This article belongs to the Special Issue Enhancing Soil Health to Mitigate Soil Degradation)
p. 988-1027
by , , , , , , , , , , , , ,  and
Sustainability 2015, 7(1), 988-1027; doi:10.3390/su7010988
Received: 13 November 2014 / Revised: 12 December 2014 / Accepted: 12 January 2015 / Published: 19 January 2015
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(This article belongs to the Special Issue Enhancing Soil Health to Mitigate Soil Degradation)
p. 866-879
by ,  and
Sustainability 2015, 7(1), 866-879; doi:10.3390/su7010866
Received: 19 November 2014 / Accepted: 7 January 2015 / Published: 13 January 2015
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(This article belongs to the Special Issue Enhancing Soil Health to Mitigate Soil Degradation)
p. 705-724
by , ,  and
Sustainability 2015, 7(1), 705-724; doi:10.3390/su7010705
Received: 30 October 2014 / Accepted: 29 December 2014 / Published: 8 January 2015
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(This article belongs to the Special Issue Enhancing Soil Health to Mitigate Soil Degradation)
p. 313-365
by , , , ,  and
Sustainability 2015, 7(1), 313-365; doi:10.3390/su7010313
Received: 6 November 2014 / Accepted: 19 December 2014 / Published: 31 December 2014
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(This article belongs to the Special Issue Enhancing Soil Health to Mitigate Soil Degradation)
p. 9538-9563
by ,  and
Sustainability 2014, 6(12), 9538-9563; doi:10.3390/su6129538
Received: 30 October 2014 / Revised: 8 December 2014 / Accepted: 12 December 2014 / Published: 22 December 2014
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(This article belongs to the Special Issue Enhancing Soil Health to Mitigate Soil Degradation)
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p. 8951-8966
by , , ,  and
Sustainability 2014, 6(12), 8951-8966; doi:10.3390/su6128951
Received: 31 October 2014 / Revised: 20 November 2014 / Accepted: 26 November 2014 / Published: 4 December 2014
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Planned Papers

The below list represents only planned manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts have not been received by the Editorial Office yet. Papers submitted to MDPI journals are subject to peer-review.

Title: Soil Degradation: A North American Perspective
Authors: R.Louis Baumhardt, Bobby A. Stewart and Humberto Blanco-Canqui
Abstract: Soil can be degraded through erosion, chemical contamination, and/or formation of undesirable physical, chemical, or biological properties through industrialization, overgrazing, or use of inappropriate farming practices at rates superseding natural capacities for recuperation or regeneration. The often overlooked and practically irreversible effects of urban sprawl should also be included; nevertheless, soil degradation reflects unsustainable soil resource management that is global in scope and compromises world food security. In North America, soil degradation preceded the catastrophic wind erosion associated with the dust bowl during the 1930’s, but that event provided the impetus for improving management of soils degraded by both wind and water erosion. Congressional mandates protecting water quality may have similarly contributed to ameliorating site-specific chemical soil degradation following contamination from industrial processing or exposure to mine spoils; however, sustained investigations have been directed toward understanding broader aspects of chemical degradation by relating farm nutrient management to contamination of surface and subsurface drainage water. Remediation or prevention of soil degradation requires integrated management solutions. To illustrate such strategies, we present experimental results using crop residue management to intercept raindrop impact and maintain higher infiltration rates that increase soil water storage and crop biomass production. Increased biomass, potentially, increases organic carbon and stable aggregates that control wind or water erosion. A current soil degradation topic reflects the integrated impact of inappropriate or excessive harvest of crop residues as biofuel feedstock or excessive grazing which can increase soil compaction, decrease subsequent rain or irrigation water infiltration and thus limit the amount of plant-available water needed for sustainable crop production. Such degradation further depresses biomass yield, which limits the regenerative benefits of soil organic matter and may require innovative management practices, such as the use of cover crops.

Title: Breaking the Cycle of Soil Degradation in Africa
Katherine L. Tully 1 and Pedro A. Sanchez 2
1 University of Maryland; Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture; College Park, MD 20742, USA
Earth Institute at Columbia University; Agriculture and Food Security Center; Palisades, NY 10964, USA
Soil degradation is inextricably linked to poverty, and nowhere in the world is this relationship more persistent and pervasive than in Africa. Sixty percent of Africa’s rapidly growing population still relies on agriculture for their livelihoods and 23% of the entire population remains chronically malnourished. African soils where smallholders farmers are located are, in general, not inherently nutrient poor, but are degraded now primarily because of nutrient depletion. Extreme nutrient depletion and overgrazing means that soils are often left bare, which can result in severe soil erosion. In this review, we will discuss the primary causes and current state of soil degradation in Africa, and present several strategies for reversing it. Human wellbeing and environmental health in Africa depend on reversing soil degradation on a landscape dominated by smallholder farms. Of particular importance is improving nutrient management on farms where centuries of nutrient removal through crop harvest and erosion have not been balanced by replenishment through either fertilizers or manure. Estimates suggest that annual nutrient losses (in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) are equivalent to USD 4 billion per year over the past 30 years in 37 African countries. Nevertheless, mineral fertilizers are not the only way to replenish soil nutrients. For example, the planting of leguminous tree species that can fix atmospheric nitrogen can also provide nutrients to soils and crops. Legume tree intercropping systems have been successfully developed in many parts of rural Africa, creating a system that not only enhances crop yields but also provides fuel wood, but they are not widely adopted. They require incentives (subsidies, etc.), but may provide a win–win strategy for reducing pressure on residual forested lands. Due to combined international efforts and national action plans, millions of hectares of cropland are being regenerated through agroforestry, soil conservation, and water management practices on smallholder farms across the Sahel region and elsewhere. Africa poses the current challenge of simultaneously increasing food production and food security, while minimizing environmental costs and the core of finding a solution lies in reversing soil degradation. We will untangle some of these complex relationships in this review and provide potential solutions for simultaneously improving crop yields and soil health.

Title: Overcoming Soil Degradation in India (From India Perspective)
Authors: Ranjan Bhattacharyya, B. Mandal, Ch Srinivasa Rao, B.N. Ghosh, K. Das, D. Sarkar, K.S. Anil and Alan J. Franzluebbers
: Soil degradation in India is estimated to occur on 147 Mha of land, including 94 Mha from water erosion, 16 Mha from acidification, 14 Mha from flooding, 9 Mha from wind erosion, 6 Mha from salinity, and 7 Mha from a combination of factors. India supports 18% of the world’s human population and 15% of the world’s livestock population, but has only 2.4% of the world’s land area. Despite its low proportional land area, India ranks second worldwide in farm output. Agriculture, forestry, and fisheries account for 17% of the gross domestic product and about 50% of the total workforce of the country. Causes of soil degradation are both natural and human induced. Natural causes include earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, avalanches, landslides, volcanic eruptions, floods, tornadoes, and wildfires. Human-induced soil degradation results from land clearing and deforestation, inappropriate agricultural practices, improper management of industrial effluents and wastes, over-grazing, careless management of forests, surface mining, urban sprawl, and commercial/industrial development. Inappropriate agricultural practices include repeated tillage and use of heavy machinery, excessive and unbalanced use of inorganic fertilizer materials, poor irrigation and water management techniques, pesticide overuse, inadequate crop residue and/or organic carbon inputs, and poor crop cycle planning. Some underlying social causes of soil degradation in India are land shortage, decline in per capita land availability, economic pressure on land, land tenancy, poverty, and population increase. In this review of India, we intend to (1) describe the main causes of soil degradation in different agro-climatic regions, (2) describe the research results documenting both soil degradation and soil health improvement in various agricultural systems, and (3) offer solutions to improve soil health in different regions using a variety of conservation agricultural approaches.

Title: Soil Quality Indices for Evaluating Smallholder Agricultural Land Uses in Northern Ethiopia
Aweke M. Gelaw 1,*, B. R. Singh 1 and R. Lal 2,†
Norwegian University of Life Sciences, P.O. Box: 5003, 1432 Ås, Norway;
E-mail: aweke.gelaw@nmbu.no or awekegelaw@gmail.com; Tel.: +47-944-28655; Fax: +47-649-65601
Carbon Sequestration and Management Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210, USA
Current address: Norwegian University of Life Sciences, P.O. Box: 5003, 1432 Ås, Norway
Population growth and increasing resource demands in Ethiopia are stressing and degrading agricultural landscapes. Most Ethiopian soils are already exhausted by several decades of over exploitation and mismanagement. Since many agricultural sustainability issues are related to soil quality, its assessment is very important. We determined integrated soil quality indices (SQI) within the surface 0–15 cm depth increment for three agricultural land uses: rain fed cultivation (RF), agroforestry (AF) and irrigated crop production (IR). Each land use was replicated five times within a semi-arid watershed in eastern Tigray, Northern Ethiopia. Using the framework suggested by Karlen and Stott (1994), four soil functions regarding soil’s ability to: (1) accommodate water entry (WE), (2) facilitate water movement and availability (WMA), (3) resist degradation (RD), and (4) supply nutrients for plant growth (PNS) were estimated for each land use. Accordingly, AF land use had significantly higher values (p < 0.05) than RF for all soil functions except for RD. Finally, the four soil quality functions were integrated into an overall SQI, and the values for the three land uses were in the order: 0.58 (AF) > 0.51 (IR) > 0.47 (RF). Thus, AF scored significantly higher SQI (p < 0.01) than that of RF. The dominant soil properties influencing the integrated SQI values were soil organic carbon (26.4%), water stable aggregation (20.0%), total porosity (16.0%), total nitrogen (11.2%), microbial biomass carbon (6.4%) and cation exchange capacity (6.4%). Collectively, those six indicators accounted for more than 80% of the overall SQI values.
soil quality; soil functions; land degradation; land use; Ethiopia

Last update: 27 February 2015

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