Impact Assessment 

Impact assessment is a set of logical steps that prepares evidence for decision-makers about the potential positive and negative consequences of options. In the context of soil management, impact assessment is crucial to recognising possible consequences of management decisions on social and natural systems across spatial and temporal scales. 
The assessment process involves the evaluation and comparison of the consequences of different soil management options according to six logical steps: identification of problems, definition of objectives, development of policy options, analysis of impacts, comparison of options, and recommendation for evaluation, monitoring, and implementation (s. Fig. 1). 

What is impact assessment? 

Impact assessment is “a means to structure the analysis of human-environment interactions” (Helming and Pérez-Soba, 2011) and synthesises scientific knowledge to inform policy and management (Carpenter et al., 2006). The knowledge gained by impact assessment supports stakeholders in various areas of decision-making, such as soil management (de Olde et al., 2016), governance and policy formulation (Podhora et al., 2013), or research design for sustainable development (Bond et al., 2012).


Impact assessment is a set of logical steps that prepares evidence for political decision-makers on the advantages and disadvantages of possible policy options by assessing their potential impacts (SEC, 2009; Helming et al. 2013; Fig. 1). Impact assessment in the context of natural resource use requires the definition of the activities and the environmental and societal system components that are evaluated.


In this context, we use a set of six steps based on the DPSIR framework. These steps can be seen as a dynamic process studying the societal reaction towards pressures on natural and human systems. It investigates a continuous loop of human-nature-human interactions. We put particular emphasis on the analytical step 4, the assessment step in the narrow sense, which evaluates the consequences of human activities on social and ecological systems from the perspective of societal targets, thereby taking an anthropocentric viewpoint.

Figure 1: Steps of impact assessment (SEC, 2009; Helming et al., 2013) applied to soil management (Helming et al, submitted) 

Impact assessment in the context of soil management is crucial in order to recognise the potential consequences of management decisions on social and natural systems across particular spatial and temporal scales. The impact assessment evaluates and compares the consequences of different soil management options. This includes management options suggested from a scientific perspective (e.g. fertilisation schemes, tillage technologies, soil treatment, bio-control and microorganism utilization, crop rotations and catch cropping, sensing technologies, irrigation), those stemming from bioeconomic innovations (e.g new cultivars and harvesting technologies, on-site harvest processing) and those derived from policy implementation at local, national and international levels (e.g. greening measures, carbon certificates). The latter is important because agricultural policies framed at the European level (CAP) and international conventions, such as those for combating desertification (UNCCD), have implications for domestic production (e.g. reduction of protein imports). Likewise, domestic decisions on land management (e.g., renewable energy strategies) may have sustainability implications in other world regions due to global market adjustments (discussed as ‘indirect land use changes’). Assessments will include issues of social acceptance, risk perception, economic costs and benefits, as well as environmental impacts beyond the soil system such as the interaction with water, air, climate, and biodiversity. In order to structure such different assessment approaches, we developed the BonaRes assessment framework which uses a systematic approach to an impact assessment of soil management and soil functions on societal targets of a sustainable bioeconomy. The results inform a variety of societal decision-makers to better align human-nature interactions with societal goals such as resource use efficiency or sustainable development (Helming and Pérez-Soba 2011). 


Those decision-makers include: 

a) policy makers that require assessments of current and future states of all soil functions and services, as well as tools to anticipate future driving forces and trends in soil management,


b) biomass producers (farmers) that require site-specific information for soil productivity indicators and best management solutions for tillage, fertilisation, pest management, crop rotations, cultivars, soil conservation. Information needs of this group are at the highest spatial (field) and temporal (up to days) resolution,


c) the biomass processing sector that requires information on biomass quantities and qualities that can be made available at specific locations and points in time, including agricultural commodities and side products such as straw and residues; and


d) the wider research community that requires information on soil processes and interdisciplinary linkage for their research (e.g. agriculture, hydrology, biodiversity, ecosystem services, climate modelling). 

The six steps of impact assessment mentioned above imply a linkage between the socio-economic system of societal target setting and decision-making with the natural system of biological, physical and chemical process interactions. Adapted to soil research (Fig.1), these steps include: 
  • (1) Analysis of future trends and driving forces for soil management options and identification of problems, 
  • (2) Definition of human activities and options regarding soil management practices exerting pressures on soil systems,
  • (3) Analysis of the effects of human activities on the state of soil processes and soil functions. This analytical step concerns the soil system and depicts how soil processes are affected by soil management and how this impacts on the ensemble of soil functions;
  • (4) assessment and valuation of direct and indirect impacts of soil management in the context of social, economic and environmental targets; 
  • (5) elaboration of governance instruments for soil management - making use of assessment results - to provoke responses counteracting negative and reinforcing positive impacts; and
  • (6) recommendations for assessment indicators, monitoring procedures and the evaluation of policy implementation (Helming, et al. 2013; Helming et al., submitted
  • Impact assessment of soil management practices from the perspective of societal targets, i.e., resource use efficiency and maintenance of ecosystem services, is an emerging research field that will be pursued by the BonaRes assessment platform. The few examples found in current literature have a predominantly agronomical focus (Speiser et al., 2013; Peters et al., 2011). Assessments considering societal decision-making, e.g., by farmers, represent a substantial research gap with the exception of a few studies e.g., in Europe (Guipponi et al., 1999) and in developing countries (Tittonell et al., 2015; Wanyama et al., 2010). 

Bond, A, Pope, J. 2012. The state of the art of impact assessment in 2012. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 30: 1-4. DOI: 10.1080/14615517.2012.669140
Carpenter, SR, Bennett, EM, Peterson, GD. 2006. Editorial: Special Feature on Scenarios for Ecosystem Services. Ecology and Society 11. DOI: 10.5751/ES-01609-110232


Giupponi, Rosato, P. 1999. Agricultural land use changes and water quality: A case study in the watershed of the Lagoon of Venice. Water Science and Technology 39(3): 135-148. DOI: 10.1016/S0273-1223(99)00045-1


Helming, K, Pérez-Soba, M. 2011. Landscape scenarios and multifunctionality: making land use impact assessment operational. Ecology and Society 16(1): 50. [online] URL:


Helming, K, Diehl, K, Geneletti, D, Wiggering, H. 2013. Mainstreaming ecosystem services in European policy impact assessment. Environmental Impact Assessment Review 40: 82-87. DOI: 10.1016/j.eiar.2013.01.004


Helming, K, Daedlow, K, Paul, C, Techen, A, Bartke, S, Bartkowski, B, Kaiser, DB, Wollschläger, U, Vogel, H-J Managing soil functions for a sustainable bioeconomy – assessment framework and state of the art. Submitted to Land Degradation and Development. 


De Olde, EM, Oudshoorn, FW, Sørensen CAG, Bokkers, EAM, de Boer, IJM. 2016. Assessing sustainability at farm-level: Lessons learned from a comparison of tools in practice. Ecological Indicators 66: 391-404. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolind.2016.01.047


Peters, GM, Wiedemann, S, Rowley, HV, Tucker, R, Feitz, AJ, Schulz, M. 2011. Assessing agricultural soil acidification and nutrient management in life cycle assessment. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 16(5): 431-441. DOI: 10.1007/s11367-011-0279-5


Podhora, A, Helming, K, Adenäuer, L, Heckelei, T, Kautto, P, Reidsma, P, Rennings, K, Turnpenny, J, Jansen, J. 2013. The policy-relevancy of impact assessment tools: Evaluating nine years of European research funding. Environmental Science & Policy 31: 85-95. DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2013.03.002


SEC – Secretariat-General European Commission, 2009. Impact Assessment Guidelines. Brussels.


Speiser, B, Stolze, M, Oehen, B, Gessler, C, Weibel, FP, Kilchenman, A, Widmer, A, Charles, R, Lang, A, Stamm, C, Triloff, P, Tamm, L. 2013. Sustainability assessment of GM crops in a Swiss agricultural context. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 33(1):21-61. DOI: 10.1007/s13593-012-0088-7


Tittonell, P, Gerard, B, Erenstein, O. 2015. Tradeoffs around crop residue biomass in smallholder crop-livestock systems – What’s next? Agricultural Systems 134(SI): 119-128. DOI: 10.1016/j.agsy.2015.02.003


Wanyama, JM, Nyambati, EM, Mose, LO, Mutoko, CM, Wanyonyi, WM, Wanjekeche, E, Rono, SC. 2010. Assessing impact of soil management technologies on smallholder farmers’ livelihoods in North Western Kenya. African Journal of Agricultural Research 5(21): 2899-2908. DOI: