BonaRes Foresight Study 2016/2017 


Taking appropriate actions to foster sustainable soil management requires the identification of drivers and trends of future soil management and the challenges and opportunities these offer. Thus, we conducted a foresight study for agricultural soil management in Germany, as an example for industrialized agricultural systems with low yield gaps.


We analyzed which factors drive soil management and how these drivers are potentially coining the development of soil management in Germany. The conceptual starting point of the analysis was the DPSIR (Driver-Pressure-State-Impact-Response) framework. From this we derived assumptions for potential developments of soil management in Germany.


In 2016 we reviewed a total of 267 different sources (Techen and Helming 2017). The priority was given to peer-reviewed publications. 


In spring of 2017 we conducted 19 semi-structured interviews (Techen and Helming 2018) with experts from soil and agricultural sciences, agricultural business and authorities (see acknowledgements) to validate and complement our review results. The structured questions in the interviews were evaluated quantitatively and the open questions were evaluated with qualitative content analysis. Questions included the likelihood and possible timeline of the emergence of new management practices as identified in the literature review.


We identified two modes of future soil management changes: (1) Quantitative changes related to of the applied quantities of given input factors. (2) Qualitative changes that can be subdivided into five categories: spatial patterns, crops and rotations, mechanical pressures, inputs into the soil and general soil conservation behavior. 


The Figure below shows potential trends in soil management in Germany, organized along the dimensions of timing and signal strength. It is an interpretation of the quantitative results and the verbal comments of the expert interviews, on the basis of the literature review. Colors refer to the main categories of change.


For instance, subsoil management is set on the far left because at this point in time indications for change of subsoil management practices are only coming from a fraction of the soil science community. On the far right is irrigation because most interviewees assumed that the acreage of irrigated agricultural land will increase in Germany, mainly due to climate change, even though it is assumed to increase already in the coming years.


On the bottom of the Figure “Dimensions of change” is precision farming and it is connected to making agricultural machines, such as tractors, autonomous. We have strong signals for machines becoming autonomous because this development is already ongoing. But this alone does not mean that the treatment of soils will change. This will only happen if the machines will change, too. In addition to the current but forcibly slowing trend towards larger machines, a countertrend to small, lightweight field robots is foreseeable. 


Some of these small machines can already be found in the fields in the test phase. Small machines bring opportunities for smaller-scaled farming, intercropping and less weight stresses, which again can have positive impact on all soil functions. Furthermore, their development is connected to very precise application of pesticides and fertilizers. But details and other impacts are unclear, e.g. the aspect of resource efficiency in terms of energy consumption.


Smaller-scaled systems that can be facilitated by smaller machines are for instance agroforestry systems, even though they are also possible with conventional machines. Research uncovering its economic and environmental benefits in temperate regions, together with technological improvements in the use of, and demand for, lignocellulosic feedstocks for energy and industry could support a trend towards agroforestry.

Techen A-K, Helming K (2017) Pressures on soil functions from soil management in Germany. A foresight review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 37 (6):64 (29 pages). , [pdf]


Techen A-K, Helming K (2018): BonaRes Foresight interviews 2017. Detailed primary data, including the acquired „Survey data“ are saved  in the BonaRes DataCentre and public available with doi in the coming months.



This research has been funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) through the program BonaRes - soil as a sustainable resource for the bioeconomy (Förderkennzeichen 031A608B). 


We thank the experts who participated in the interviews: Thomas Assheuer, Keith Bristow, Lijbert Brussaard, Frank Ewert, Juliane Filser, Udo Folgart, Jörn Fröhlich, André Grosa, Frank Glante, Oliver Hakemann, Katarina Hedlund, Thomas Herlitzius, Lothar Hövelmann, Dorit Kuhnt, Martin Kunisch, Luca Montanarella, Reimund Rötter, Thomas Scholten, Ulrich Schurr, Kate Scow, Hartmut Stalb and Thilo Streck.