The changing faces of soil organic matter research

P Smith, S. Lutfalla, W. J. Riley, M. S. Torn, M. W. I. Schmidt, J.-F Soussana

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For the 70th 16 Anniversary of the establishment of the British Society of Soil Science, this short paper explores the idea that research on soil organic matter has remained a central theme within soil science over the past 70 years, albeit with changing emphasis and application. The number of publications on soil organic matter has increased greatly in recent decades; for example there were almost 35 000 journal papers with this theme in the decade 2007–2016. Several topics in research on soil organic matter, such as soil fertility, have endured for a number of decades, with publications found on soil organic matter and fertility in the decade 1947–1956. A search with other keywords occurring with soil such as climate change, biodiversity, fertility, quality, health and security showed that several topics did not appear before the 1970s and 1980s, but since then the sub-topics and applications have diversified. Carbon is a keyword that has become more associated with publications on soil organic matter; carbon is in over half of soil organic matter publications of the last decade. A closer examination of research on agricultural soil carbon sequestration since 1990 reveals that the focus of papers in the literature has changed over this period. A closer examination of papers on modelling shows that the next generation of soil organic matter models is developing from pseudo first-order decay models using conceptual pools and prescribed controls of turnover time to vertically resolved, microbially explicit models, representing mineral surface and plant interactions. Given its higher policy profile during the last two years, research on soil organic matter and soil carbon sequestration is predicted to have a bright future.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-30
Number of pages8
JournalEuropean Journal of Soil Science
Issue number1
Early online date5 Dec 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018

Bibliographical note

This work contributes to the projects N-Circle (BB/N013484/1), DEVIL NE/M021327/1) and U-GRASS (NE/M017125/1). MST and WJR were supported by U.S. Department of Energy funding under contract DE-AC02-05CH11231. We are grateful to Dr John M. Kimble for providing the idea for this paper through a remembered conversation in around 1996.


  • soil organic carbon
  • sequestration
  • climate change
  • biodiversity
  • soil fertility
  • soil quality
  • soil health
  • soil security


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