Skip to main content
EU Science Hub
News article5 October 2021

Soil biodiversity and manure: risks, benefits and policy needs

Depending on the quality of manure, its application can both enhance and impair soil biodiversity
© © Albert Orgiazzi, JRC

A recent JRC-led article finds that manure quality trumps quantity when it comes to enhancing soil biodiversity, and calls for a radical transformation of agricultural practices to help mitigate environmental risks.

Manure application to enhance soils

More than 1.4 billion tonnes of manure are generated and applied to soils in the EU and UK every year.

Current European regulations on manure disposal are scattered across different pieces of legislation, and ignore the important issue of soil biodiversity, which is crucial to soil quality.

Greater consideration of soil biodiversity in manure management can help mitigate environmental risks, and enhance the sustainability of food systems.

This study finds that manure quality (type) is more important to soil biodiversity than quantity (amount) and should be addressed by soil protection measures.

Relationship between manure and soil biodiversity

The study addresses the main benefits and environmental risks of manure application in relation to soil biodiversity by extensively reviewing over 400 published documents on the subject.

Negative impacts of intensive farming on soil biodiversity and quality

Positive and negative effects of manure on belowground organisms

The use of manure boosts biological activity, abundance and diversity by providing nutrients for soil life. Taking soil biodiversity into account in manure management offers a win-win solution for enhancing agricultural productivity, reducing farmers’ costs and enabling positive environmental effects (e.g. increasing soil organic carbon and mitigating contamination risks).

At the same time, heavy metals, hormones and antibiotics sometimes present in manure can harm soil organisms. Potential risks should be addressed by avoiding the application of manure containing such contaminants.

Beneficial and harmful manure practices

The review provides an overview of beneficial and harmful manure practices vis-a-vis soil biodiversity.

Beneficial and harmful manure practices for soil biodiversity (on the left) result in sustainable manure management if the checklist provided on the right is followed

These practices should be selectively applied, monitored and considered by policymakers to better protect and meaningfully enhance and preserve soil biodiversity.

This is crucial since projections for 2030 predict an increase in manure application.

Quality over quantity to promote sustainability

Manure quality (type) is more important to soil biodiversity than manure quantity (amount).

Therefore, as a first step to tackle the EU’s manure relevant problems, it is important to prioritise quality over quantity to ensure a more sustainable food system.

“Our analysis confirms that soil biodiversity needs to be appropriately considered when applying manure amendments to reduce environmental risks and costs” says Julia Köninger, the PhD student responsible for the research.

To counteract current mismanagement, increased monitoring and integrated research are needed.

Policy implications

While the EU is increasingly aware of the importance of protecting soil biodiversity, manure quality requires greater attention, calling for more targeted policies.

To achieve the ambitious goals of the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Circular Economy Action Plan, new/updated regulatory instruments would be needed.

JRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership programme

This research is the first peer-reviewed output developed under the JRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership programme.

The lead author, Julia Köninger, is currently carrying out a joint PhD project between the JRC’s Soil Team and University of Vigo (Spain) focused on soil biodiversity.

Further information

Related Content

Manure management and soil biodiversity: Towards more sustainable food systems in the EU

JRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership programme


Publication date
5 October 2021