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Reducing soil phosphorus fertility brings potential long-term environmental gains: A UK analysis

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Paul BilsborrowORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


© 2017 IOP Publishing Ltd. Soil phosphorus (P) fertility arising from historic P inputs is a major driver of P mobilisation in agricultural runoff and increases the risk of aquatic eutrophication. To determine the environmental benefit of lowering soil P fertility, a meta-analysis of the relationship between soil test P (measured as Olsen-P) and P concentrations in agricultural drainflow and surface runoff in mostly UK soils was undertaken in relation to current eutrophication control targets (30-35 g P L-1). At agronomic-optimum Olsen P (16-25 mg kg-1), concentrations of soluble reactive P (SRP), total dissolved P (TDP), total P (TP) and sediment-P (SS-P) in runoff were predicted by linear regression analysis to vary between 24 and 183 μg L-1, 38 and 315 μg L-1, 0.2 and 9.6 mg L-1, and 0.31 and 3.2 g kg-1, respectively. Concentrations of SRP and TDP in runoff were much more sensitive to changes in Olsen-P than were TP and SS-P concentrations, which confirms that separate strategies are required for mitigating the mobilisation of dissolved and particulate P forms. As the main driver of eutrophication, SRP concentrations in runoff were reduced on average by 60 μg L-1 (71%) by lowering soil Olsen-P from optimum (25 mg kg-1) to 10 mg kg-1. At Olsen-P concentrations below 12 mg kg-1, dissolved hydrolysable P (largely organic) became the dominant form of soluble P transported. We concluded that maintaining agronomic-optimum Olsen-P could still pose a eutrophication risk, and that a greater research focus on reducing critical soil test P through innovative agro-engineering of soils, crops and fertilisers would give long-term benefits in reducing the endemic eutrophication risk arising from legacy soil P. Soil P testing should become compulsory in priority catchments suffering, or sensitive to, eutrophication to ensure soil P reserves are fully accounted for as part of good fertiliser and manure management.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Withers PJA, Hodgkinson RA, Rollett A, Dyer C, Dils R, Collins AL, Bilsborrow PE, Bailey G, Sylvester-Bradley R

Publication type: Review

Publication status: Published

Journal: Environmental Research Letters

Year: 2017

Volume: 12

Issue: 6

Online publication date: 26/05/2017

Acceptance date: 29/03/2017

ISSN (print): 1748-9318

ISSN (electronic): 1748-9326

Publisher: Institute of Physics Publishing


DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa69fc