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Examining links between soil management, soil health, and public benefits in agricultural landscapes: An Australian perspective

Bennett, Lauren T., Mele, Pauline M., Annett, Shayne, Kasel, Sabine
Agriculture, ecosystems & environment 2010 v.139 no.1-2 pp. 1-12
agricultural land, landscapes, soil management, soil quality, social benefit, ecosystem services, land management, agricultural policy, crop yield, environmental indicators, case studies, biogeochemical cycles, Australia
Public expectations of soil management are gradually expanding beyond traditional primary production requirements to include diverse ecosystem services. In Australia, as in many other countries, the accommodation of these new expectations will require shifts in the practice of private land managers. In turn, this may require public intervention and the expenditure of public funds. However, public net benefits from soil management interventions are rarely established, in part due to a lack of understanding of the conceptual links between management changes, soil health, and associated services and benefits. This paper uses an ecosystem services-based approach to examine these links from an Australian perspective. Entrenchment of the popular soil health concept in field-based assessments of agricultural production potential was found to limit the concept's applicability to questions of broader public benefit. Without expanding soil health to include more ecological indicators, the concept risks remaining peripheral to contemporary visions of multiple-outcome soil management in Australia. Conceptual and case study links were examined between soil properties and processes, soil-based services, and private and public net benefits. In this framework, benefits were produced from services, and were considered a more tangible point for public understanding and valuation than services. The qualitative case study highlighted many knowledge gaps relating to non-agricultural services and benefits from soils, particularly in the scaling-up of sub-paddock measurements, and in the form and constancy of relationships among services and benefits. Criteria for identifying priority public benefits from soil management were examined, namely, likelihood, degree, consequence, scale, direction, time lag, and valuation. Assumptions about these criteria require rigorous testing so that the what, where, when, and how of public benefits from changed soil management can be more clearly defined.