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Organic waste recycling in agriculture and related effects on soil water retention and plant available water: a review

Marie Eden (1,2), Horst H. Gerke (3), Sabine Houot (2)

Eden & al., 2017
Eden & al., Agronomy for Sustainable Development April 2017, 37:11

The decrease of organic matter content in agricultural soils is a problem of great concern to farmers around the world. Indeed, it lowers soil fertility that directly impairs agricultural crop production and affects a number of other soil properties like the water retention capacity. Scarcity in plant available water poses a risk to agriculture, especially in drought-prone areas. However, the increase of organic waste recycling in agriculture may lead to an increase in soil organic matter contents and to changes in related soil properties. This paper reviewed 17 long-term field experiments that investigated the effects of organic amendments on organic carbon and water availability in topsoils, particularly the effects of added organic matter on soil bulk density or porosity and consequently on plant available water.

Main results

The use of organic wastes in agriculture provides the opportunity to simultaneously increase soil productivity and potentially offer a more sustainable way of dealing with organic wastes. Many recent studies highlight the importance of soil organic matter (OM) with regard to climate change[1,2]. Moreover, among the grand challenges in research on soil processes, there is a need to modify agricultural practices in order to improve water and nutrient retention of the cropped soil layer but also to increase the soil water directly available to plant roots given that the increase in agricultural food production will have to be met by increased yields [3]. However, according to climate change predictions, some areas are likely to encounter decreased precipitation and increased temperatures while water availability for irrigation is likely to decrease due to overall higher demand [4].

The focus of this paper was to review and analyze the impact of the application of organic wastes in agriculture on water retention between field capacity (FC) and wilting point (WP), which determines the amount of soil water available for plants in the topsoil, where amendments are incorporated (figure 1).

Fig.1 Eden 2017

Figure 1: Schematic of water-filled pore volume; with decreasing water content, more pores are air-filled; beginning with the largest pores (diameter).

Our main findings are that:

  • Plant available water generally improves after organic waste addition (relative changes from −10 to +30 vol%; p = 0.052)
  • Organic matter quality affects changes in organic carbon (p < 0.05)
  • It is more suitable for plant available water quantification to use volumetric rather than gravimetric water contents
  • The value of the matric potential defining field capacity is an issue
  • Pedotransfer functions developed for American soils adequately predicted most water contents at field capacity and wilting point
  • Prevailing climate and initial organic carbon content may affect plant available water (figure 2).
Fig.2 Eden 2017

Figure 2 : Relationship between increase in soil organic carbon content and plant available water in the plough horizon. Results are issued from 17 long-term field experiments.

This review confirms that organic amendments generally induce beneficial effects on plant available water and other soil properties. It also highlights the influence of organic matter quality on soil organic carbon. Compared with a previous review, this study reinforces reported trends of increasing plant available water with organic waste additions. This may be due to a more restrictive selection of recently published data and the use of volumetric water contents. Our findings are significant for sustainable agriculture regarding the sustainable use of organic wastes and water.

Full article: Click here


1. Amundson R, Berhe AA, Hopmans JW, Olson C, Sztein AE, Sparks DL (2015) Soil and human security in the 21st century. Science 348(6235):647–653. doi:10.1126/science.1261071

2. Baveye PC (2015) Grand challenges in the research on soil processes. Front Environ Sci 3:1–5. doi:10.3389/fenvs.2015.00010

3. Sposito G (2013) Green water and global food security. Vadose Zone J 12(4). doi:10.2136/vzj2013.02.0041

4. Bouma J, Kwakernaak C, Bonfante A, Stoorvogel JJ,Dekker LW(2015) Soil science input in transdisciplinary projects in the Netherlands and Italy. Geoderma Regional 5:96–105. doi:10.1016/j.geodrs.2015.04.002


1 Technical University of Munich, Geomorphology and Soil Science, Freising-Weihenstephan, Germany

2 UMR ECOSYS, INRA, AgroParisTech, Université Paris-Saclay, 78850 Thiverval-Grignon, France

3 Leibniz-Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF), Soil Landscape Research, Müncheberg, Germany

See also

Khaleel R, Reddy KR, Overcash MR (1981) Changes in soil physicalpropertiesdue to organicwaste applications - review. J Environ Qual10(2):133–141


Rawls WJ, Pachepsky YA, Ritchie JC, Sobecki TM, Bloodworth H (2003) Effect of soil organic carbon on soil water retention. Geoderma 116(1–2):61–76.