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Geoderma
Volume 362, 2020, 114112

Soil quality and phosphorus status after nine years of organic and conventional farming at two input levels in the Central Highlands of Kenya

C.von Arba, E.K.BŁnemanna, H.Schmalza, M.Portmanna, N.Adamteya, M.W.Musyokab, E.Frossardc, A.Fliessbacha

Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, Ackerstrasse, CH-5070 Frick, Switzerland.

Abstract

Under temperate climate conditions, organic farming systems show improved soil quality compared to non-organic systems, whereas little long-term research on the impact of organic farming on soil quality has been conducted in sub-Saharan Africa. Within the system comparison (SysCom) project, two long-term field experiments were set up in 2007 in the sub-humid Central Highlands of Kenya to compare organic and conventional farming at two input levels (high input systems with recommended rates of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and pesticides and with irrigation vs. rain-fed low input systems with low N, P and pesticides), with a similar design at both sites. The two sites differ mainly in their inherent soil properties and in the amount and distribution of rainfall. At the end of each three-year crop rotation period, we analyzed a set of chemical, biological and physical soil quality parameters in 0–20 cm soil depth. After nine years, microbial parameters seemed to have reached a steady state, whereas chemical parameters were still changing. Most soil quality parameters were highest under the high input organic farming system. The high input conventional system performed well in preserving several soil quality indicators, but a trend for acidification and the lack of soil carbon build-up raise concerns about the long-term sustainability of the system. Low input organic and conventional farming systems did not improve soil quality and even showed decreasing trends in several chemical parameters. Total and available P accumulated over time, especially in both high input systems, suggesting increasing risks of losses to the environment. Pronounced site effects revealed strong interactions with pedo-climatic conditions, with soil quality under high input organic farming improving to a greater extent at the site with more favorable conditions. Besides effects on soil quality, important criteria for sustainable input levels are thus the general availability of inputs, resulting nutrient input–output budgets as well as interactions of inputs with inherent soil properties.

Keywords: Organic farming, Soil quality, sub-Saharan Africa, Commercial farming, Subsistence farming, Long-term field experiment, Farming system comparison.

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