The cadmium (Cd) uptake and accumulation in the cereal crops like wheat and rice are a serious concern in recent years. Application of various organic amendments in Cd-contaminated soil is an effective technique in management of crop growth and health as organic amendments not only promote plant’s growth but also check Cd translocation in plants. For this purpose, 3 organic amendments (wheat straw biochar (WSB), cotton stick biochar (CSB), and compost comp) were applied @ 0.5% (under randomized complete block design with 4 replicates) in sewage water fed Cd-contaminated soil for effective locking of Cd in soil being cultivated with wheat and rice. The experiment was completed in almost 1 year (December 2014 to November 2015). Our results revealed that all amendments can enhance plant growth and physiology and decrease soil bioavailable Cd contents, but WSB was most prominent among 3 applied. Our results conclude that WSB can enhance straw yield (29.20 and 26.78% for wheat and rice) and grain yield (22.69% and 26.70%) and boast all physiological attributes (chlorophyll contents, stomatal/substomatal conductance, photosynthetic and transpiration rate). Application of WSB decreased post-harvest bioavailable soil Cd contents after wheat and rice crops to 56.37, 48.99% and 7.63, 26.78% in 0–15-cm and 15–30-cm soil depths, respectively. The WSB also decreased Cd translocation in grain, thus helping in decreasing the health risk index (HRI) associated with Cd-contaminated grain consumptions. For economics, amendment application in wheat crops increases its cost, so the benefit–cost ratio was observed to be less than 1. But for upcoming cropping seasons, residues of amendments will still be actively influencing plant growth and yield, so we expect a net higher benefit–cost ratio proving long-lasting use of amendments (especially WSB) a net beneficial approach.
Soil degradation is a major problem of modern-day sustainable agriculture and a curse affecting crops in various ways (Ayub et al., 2019). Soil pollution with cadmium (Cd) is a very crucial cause of soil degradation (Naeem et al. 2019) as the presence of Cd in cropland is alarming for soil health and agriculture (Qayyum et al. 2017; Naeem et al. 2019). Owing to high activity at low concentration range, longer persistence, and non-biodegradability in the soil–plant system (Rehman et al., 2018a, b), the cadmium is known to have significant adverse effects on plant and human health (Qayyum et al. 2017; Rehman et al. 2019; Azhar et al. 2019). Several scientific investigations have revealed that Cd contamination is affecting the cause of sustainable and healthy food production worldwide (Rehman et al. 2017, 2018a; Qayyum et al. 2017) as it destroys plant normal metabolic and physiological functioning (Rehman et al. 2018a, b). Among various food crops, wheat and rice play a vital role in the food security of more than 50% world population (FAO, 2014), and if these crops are grown on Cd-contaminated soils, then there is a huge health risk. It is a well-reported fact that Cd contents can be taken up by these grain crops leading its way up to the food chain (Qayyum et al. 2017; Rehman et al. 2018a, b; Azhar et al. 2019).
Among various pools of soil Cd, bioavailable Cd fraction is the only what is taken up by the plant, and decreasing bioavailable soil Cd contents can be a sustainable option for stopping Cd uptake into food crops (Ahmad et al., 2016; Qayyum et al. 2017; Rizwan et al. 2018; Rehman et al. 2019). Different types of strategies have been developed in the past to particularly counter the Cd bioavailable fraction in soil, mainly through alterations in soil pH and manipulation of soil metal binding capacity (Abbas et al. 2017; Rizwan et al. 2018). The role of inorganic sources, such as liming, gypsum, and elemental sulfur, is well documented for the effective reduction of Cd bioavailability and uptake in wheat (Qayyum et al. 2017; Rehman et al. 2017; Hamid et al. 2019) and rice (Rizwan et al. 2016b; Zhang et al. 2019). However, organic amendment application into contaminated soils brings about more beneficial results due to reasonable cost, high degradability, and their role in uplifting soil fertility and health (O’Connor et al. 2018; Rizwan et al. 2018). Recently, the potential influence of biochar and compost for the restoration of Cd-polluted lands is gaining popularity (O’Connor et al. 2018; Azhar et al. 2019). Among various organic amendments, the application of biochar (Wu et al., 2016; Qian et al. 2019; Azhar et al. 2019) and compost (Karer et al. 2015) has shown promising results for tackling Cd contamination as they both boast soil health and plant growth and decrease Cd bioavailability (Jones et al. 2016; Rehman et al. 2016).
Owing to concerns regarding the potential toxicity of Cd contamination in wastewater-irrigated field corps, the present investigation was conducted to check the feasibility and economics of biochar and compost in-field application. Two types of biochar (cotton stick biochar (CSB) and wheat straw biochar (WSB)) and compost were applied in field @ 0.5% (soil weight basis) organic carbon (OC) in soil, and wheat–rice cropping scheme was observed. The first crop was wheat, while the residue effect of amendments was observed in rice crop and amendment application feasibility was observed in terms of crop growth/yield improvement and economics. An economic evaluation of organic amendments for Cd immobilization in soils during wheat and rice growth was done to determine if or not the amendments fairly qualify their utility for the farmer in terms of the price range.
Materials and methods
Site selection and soil–plant analysis
A field was selected for the experimentation in the suburb of Multan City (30° 13′ 56.7″ N 71° 24′ 48.6″ E) of Punjab Province, Pakistan. The field was being irrigated with untreated surplus (waste) water for 35 years. The application of untreated sewage wastewater was strictly coupled with the unavailability of fresh/canal water for a given period. City untreated waste contains multiple elements coming from non-point sources contributing to an unsafe amount of Cd in irrigation water (Table 2). Before the initiation of experiments, the soil of the site was pre-analyzed for physicochemical properties and cadmium (Cd) contamination level. The soil sample was collected following random sampling from 2 depths 0–15 cm and 15–30 cm as composite samples from both depths. The collected samples (soil) were sieved with a 2-mm sieve and were analyzed for physical parameters (soil texture) following Bouyoucos’ (1962) protocol and chemical properties like soil pH using pH meter, soluble cations, and an anion following US Salinity Laboratory Staff (1954) and Page et al. (1982). Soil extracts ECe and SAR were also measured following US Salinity Laboratory Staff (1954). Soil organic carbon was determined by using the method introduced by Jackson (1962).
Soil total and bioavailable metal contents were determined by following Amacher (1996) and Soltanpour (1985) respectively. For total Cd, 1-g soil was digested using 10 mL concentrated HNO3 on a hot plate at 200 °C for 2 h in a digestion flask. The media was cooled at room temperature and added with HNO3–HClO4 mixture as 1 mL and 4 mL respectively and again heated at 200 °C till the emission of dense white fumes (HClO4). Digested media were cooled and added with an extra 10 mL of HCl and heated at 70 °C for an hour. Samples were diluted to 50 mL using HCl solution (1%) and filtered with Whatman No. 42 ashless filter paper. For bioavailable metal fraction, ammonium bicarbonate diethylenediamine-penta-acetic acid (AB-DTPA) extraction media (AB 79.06 g and DTPA 1.97 g mixed in 1-L water solution with pH of 7.6) were used. For the procedure, 10 g of the soil was added in a centrifuge tube, 20 mL of the extraction solution was added, and filtered was taken after shaking and centrifugation (Soltanpour, 1985). The physiochemical characteristics of the soil are given in Table 1.
Characterization of untreated effluent
Untreated sewage water was used to irrigate both cereal crops which is the common practice of the local farmers. These raw city effluents were pre-analyzed to access the fitness of the water. For the characterization of the water, the standard procedures were followed established by the US Salinity Laboratory Staff (1954) and given in Table 2.
Amendments characterization and application
Organic amendments were also characterized before their application in the field trial. Biochar of cotton stick and wheat straw was prepared by using the pyrolysis process in a stainless-steel furnace at 450 °C under anaerobic conditions. The pH and EC of the amendments were measured by using pH and EC meter in 1:20 w/w, distilled water to amendment weight ratio. The ash contents and volatile material in the biochar were measured by heating them in a muffle furnace at 550 °C and 450 °C respectively. The total essential nutrients in the biochar and compost were analyzed by digestion with HNO3 and HClO4 in 3:1 ratio. The detailed characteristics of cotton stick biochar and wheat straw biochar, pH, EC, ash contents, nitrogen, phosphorus, sodium, and potassium, are reported in work published by Qayyum et al. (2015). The compost was prepared by the aerobic decomposition of organic-based material. These organic amendments such as cotton stick biochar, wheat straw biochar, and compost were applied at the rate of 0.5% in the respective treatment.
Experimental planning and execution
It was a 1-year trial involving two consecutive crops (wheat and rice). Field was designed into plots and subplots following randomized complete block design (RCBD) with 4 treatments applied as 4 replications. The field was divided into 4 plots (replications), and each plot was divided into 4 subblocks for 4 treatments, and each treatment plot (each out of 16) was of 3 × 3-m dimensions. Each block received all the treatments randomly without biasness. Four treatments were applied with 4 replications: T1 was contaminated control (CC), T2 was cotton stick biochar applied @ 0.5% (CSB), T3 was wheat straw biochar applied @ 0.5% (WSB), and T4 was compost applied @ 0.5% (Comp). These treatments were applied in each plot randomly by manual hoeing to the depth of 0.15 m.
Seed sowing, agricultural practices, and sampling
Before the sowing of seeds, the field was prepared by tine cultivator, and NPK @120–100–60 kg ha−1 was applied in the form of DAP, SOP, and urea. The P and K fertilizers were applied at the time of sowing, while urea was applied in 2 splits. Wheat (Galaxy-2013 Var) was broadcasted @ 125 kg/ha or almost 1.01 kg per plot on 1st December 2014 and irrigated with sewage wastewater. Wheat seedling started to germinate about 5 days after sowing, and complete germination occurred after 15 days of sowing. Approximately, 45.5 mm of rainfall was received by the wheat growth season (Data Cotton sourced from Agricultural Meteorological Cell, Central Research Institute (CCRI), Multan). After 4 months, on the completion of growth and reproductive stages of the wheat (April 2015), the crop was harvested and samples were collected (using a meter square) and brought in the ISES lab carefully. Following the harvesting of the wheat crop, the paddy was grown in the same field but this time amendments were not added, and the field was prepared for rice cultivation on August 9, 2015. Rice nursery was grown in the uncontaminated soil at ISES research farm UAF; after 40 days of nursery growth, seedlings of rice were transported to field locations and transplanted in the field where previously wheat was cultivated. For the rice transplantation, the field was puddled, and rice seedlings were transplanted in standing water with row–row and plant–plant distance of 25 cm and @ 3 seedlings per hill. The rice field was irrigated with raw city effluents to maintain submerged conditions until the maturation of the crop. The recommended dose of fertilizers was applied in the form of urea (75 kg/ha) and DAP (100 kg/ha), and furadan was applied to control the pest attack. About 50-mm rainfall was recorded during the whole season of the rice crop. Once seedlings (wheat) and crop (rice) were of 50 days old, plant physiological parameters were recorded using infra-red gas analyzer 9LCA-4 ADC IRGA at 10:30–11:30 AM for both crops. Plant sample collection was done using a meter square via randomly throwing in each treatment plot. At the maturity stage, rice was harvested on 26th November 2016 and samples were brought to the ISES lab, UAF, carefully.
Post-harvest analysis of plants and soil
After the harvesting of the crops, plant samples were thoroughly washed with fresh water and distilled water to eliminate any attached foreign object/s. The produce of the crops was measured by separating the grains and straw, and yield (tons per ha) was determined. For the determination of tissue Cd contents, the plant samples were oven-dried at 65 ± 5 °C till constant tissue weight was achieved. The plant samples were ground after the oven drying, and a 0.5-g sample was taken in a digestion flask separately for both crops. Ten (10) mL Di-acid (HNO3, HClO4 mixed in 3:1) was added in the digestion flasks and was placed overnight. The following day, samples were placed on a hot plate till the emergence of white dense fume, and the final volume of the mixture was made to 25 mL. For the determination of post-harvest soil chemical properties (Soluble cations and AB-DTPA extractable Cd), soil samples were collected from each replication set on field block following composite random sampling and brought to the lab. The digested plant tissue samples and AB-DTPA solution extracted soil samples were run in the atomic absorption spectrophotometer (AAS) for the determination of Cd in soil and plants.
Cd was determined in the roots, shoots, and grains of both cereal crops in mg per kg of dry matter and for the soil in mg/kg on a dry soil weight basis. Uptake of total Cd by roots and shoots of wheat and rice crop was calculated by using the equation reported by Rehman et al. (2017) as follows:
The bioaccumulation factor (BAF) of Cd was measured by the equation established by Kalčíková et al. (2016) and given as:
Shoot:grain of Cd was calculated from the following equation:
Cd immobilization index (II%) was derived following Lee et al. (2013):
Daily intake of metal (DIM) was calculated using the following relation
in which Cm was grain-concentrated Cd (mg/kg), Cf is 0.085, D (daily food intake) was taken as 0.4 kg per person per day, and BW (body weight) was applied as 70 kg.
The health risk index (HRI) for Cd was calculated following Mahmood and Malik (2014).
The oral reference dose (RF) is 0.001, and DIM is determined by Eq. (8).
Economics of the whole experiment was also calculated, and its benefit to cost ratio (BCR) was determined by using the following formula:
The data were analyzed with Minitab for analysis of variance technique (ANOVA), and least significance difference (LSD) was used for pairwise comparison of mean values.
Results and discussion
Physiological response and yield of cereal crops
The current study shows that application of CSB, WSB, and Comp has significantly increased wheat and rice growth and physiological attributes like chlorophyll contents, photosynthetic rate, stomatal and substomatal conductance, and transpiration rate (Figs. 1 and 2). Among all organic amendments, WSB was the most efficient in increasing plant growth and boasting physiological attributes. For the shoot, grain yield, and 1000 grain weight, WSB has shown a net increase of 29.19, 31.60%; 22.69, 26.78%; and 35.38, 24.70% in wheat and rice respectively compared to control. Among physiological parameters, WSB also significantly promoted chlorophyll contents (9.40, 8.49%), photosynthetic rate (40.87, 29.94%), stomatal conductance (131.03, 78.58%), substomatal conductance (7.6, 8.71%), and transpiration rate (59.30, 36.76%) for wheat and rice respectively compared to respective controls. The trend of amendment’s influence on wheat and rice growth and physiological parameters was found in the following sequence with superscript being % increase compared to control:
The damaging effects of Cd on chlorophyll structure and alterations in the photosynthetic apparatus might be the reason why photosynthetic parameters and growth were minimum in control plants (Rizwan et al., 2016b, c) which can be reversed by application of organic amendments (Jones et al. 2016; Qayyum et al. 2017; Rehman et al. 2017; Rehman et al. 2018a, b). Organic amendments can be used as a source of organic carbon as well as a variety of essential plant macro- and micronutrients which can significantly influence plant growth (Dey et al. 2019; Sohail et al. 2019; Shiwakoti et al. 2020). The nutrient provision pattern of organic amendments is highly dependent upon the nature of the amendment and growth media of the crop (Diacono and Montemurro 2011; Sohail et al., 2020a, b). Besides nutrition provision, the application of organic amendments is also responsible for improving soil water holding capacity (Zheng et al. 2017) which can result in metal dilution in the soil as well as an upsurge in plant growth. Similar findings were found in our investigation where the application of different organic amendments has significantly increased plant growth and improved physiological attributes under a sewage water irrigation system. Better efficacy of WSB compared to other organic amendments in increasing growth and promoting physiological attributes can be due to higher nutrient contents (Sohail et al. 2020a) as well as silicon release capacity (Sohail et al. 2020b). As reported previously, the application of Si-rich amendments can be very effective in managing Cd toxicity in cereals (Azhar et al. 2019; Sohail et al. 2019) as Si checks Cd translocation in plant body and boasts plant’s physiology (Farooq et al. 2016) and gene expression (Shao et al. 2017). Our findings are also in agreement with work conducted by Rehman et al. (2017) and Rehman et al. (2018b).
Cadmium fate in the soil–plant system
Application of sewage wastewater in agriculture soils is a major of heavy metal pollutants especially Cd which can accumulate in soil and can be uptaken by plants (Azhar et al. 2019; Sohail et al., 2020a, b). In the present investigation, the wastewater being used for irrigation purposes for decades was also found to be unfit for irrigation (Figs. 3, 4, and 5) thus has made significant deposits of Cd in soil (Fig. 5a, Table 1). Application of organic amendments in HM-contaminated soils has been widely reported to be effective in decreasing HM toxicity and improving plant growth (Al Mamun et al., 2016; Jones et al. 2016; Qayyum et al. 2017; Rehman et al. 2017; Rehman et al. 2018a, b). Similar results were found in our investigation which shows WSB, CSB, and compost effectiveness in decreasing soil bioavailable Cd contents as well as its concentration in wheat and rice tissues with WSB being the most prominent treatment. Post-harvest soil Cd contents of wheat and rice crops have shown a remarkable decrease of 56.37 and 48.99% for 0–15-cm depth compared to respective controls. The bioavailable Cd fraction of soil was more in rice than wheat crop due to reduced condition of puddled rice field as it was grown on standing water which can increase soil bioavailable Cd contents (Azhar et al. 2019). In terms of Cd immobilization, an obvious effect was observed in the top 0–15-cm layer of soil with WSB being most prominent among all treatments. For wheat and rice tissue Cd accumulation, WSB application resulted in a net decrease of 72.10, 49.01% in straw Cd concentration and 78.57, 54.7% in grain Cd concentration compared to respective controls. The sequence and trend of the rest of the amendments are given below with “-%” showing net decrease compared to respective controls:
Bioavailable soil Cd fraction is responsible for net Cd accumulation and translocation in plants (Yousaf et al. 2016; Rehman et al. 2018a), and application of organic amendments can significantly decrease this portion (Bolan et al. 2014). The WSB has strong Cd adsorption capacity as it enhances the production of hydroxides (oxy), carbonates of Cd along with the promotion of organically bounded Cd fraction in the soil causing up to 90% Cd decrease than control (Cui et al. 2019). Rehman et al. (2017) reported that the reduction in Cd bioavailable fraction because of biochar usage in the soil is due to the complex formation between the Fe/Al minerals on biochar surface and Cd. However, the rate of the applied dose, soil type, plant species, source carbon, and oven temperature determines the ability of biochar for metal immobilization and plant uptake (Rizwan et al. 2016a). A decrease in soil bioavailable Cd contents is responsible for lower Cd accumulation and higher growth in cereals as reported by various provisos investigations (Rehman et al. 2016; Rehman et al. 2017; Rehman et al. 2018a, b, Azhar et al. 2019).
Once soil bioavailable Cd contents decrease, its net immobilization increases in the soil as coupled with its decreased translocation into plant edible portion (grains) as reported in our work. Application of WSB was found to be most effective (significant) in increasing net Cd immobilization, shoot to grain Cd ratio, and Cd bioaccumulation in the shoot and grain compared to control (Fig. 4). A detailed sequence of treatment effectiveness is given in the following order with superscript lettering showing LSD lettering:
The application of biochar in soil has previously been found to be effective in decreasing Cd root, shoot, and grain contents as it has significant Cd adsorption capacity (Yousaf et al. 2016; Rehman et al. 2018a). Application of this kind of organic amendments is effective in decreasing heavy metal accumulation in various plants (Rehman et al. 2017) like mung bean (Prapagdee et al. 2014), lettuce (Kim et al. 2015), sunflower (Sneath et al. 2013), turnip (Khan et al. 2015), ryegrass (Houben et al. 2013), mustard (Choppala et al. 2015), tomato (Beesley et al. 2013), soybean (Waqas et al. 2014), and maize (Almaroai et al. 2014). Lower Cd assimilation in plant tissue is attributed to lower soil bioavailable Cd, its uptake, and translocation (Rehman et al. 2019). Upon decrease accumulation in grain portion of wheat and rice, Cd-mediated potential health risk is represented by the HRI which was found to be significantly decreased via application of organic amendments as given below:
Decreased HRI in WSB treatment can be attributed to its Cd fixation in soil decreasing its bioavailable fraction (Cui et al. 2019) thus decreasing its uptake and accumulation as shown in the present investigation (Fig. 5).
Crop economics: benefit to cost ratio
The BCR for both crops was evaluated to estimate the best and economical treatment for the Cd immobilization and reduce the uptake to plants (Fig. 5c). For calculation of total input cost, regional targeted prices of amendments (USD per kg) were used, and produced grains and straw yield were put into use for estimation of total output (USD). Compulsory and fixed costs were also kept in the equation, making estimation more accurate. For the first crop of the experiment (wheat), we observed maximum benefit to cost ratio for contaminated control (2.44) with no amendment applied followed by WSB (0.33), compost (0.30), and CSB (0.27) application. The cost of amendments was the main factor increasing the total cost of the planned crop resulting B:C to be < 1, and in control, there was no amendment added, so it shows higher BCR. Application of amendments is only a one-time investment, and biochar is quite persistent in soil and takes years to degrade, while aging only increases the cation adsorption capacity of biochar thus making more capability for adsorption of heavy metals (Mia et al. 2017). Upon consistent years of growth, the benefit will surpass the initial cost of amendment application and net benefit will be observed.
For sustainable and safe food production in the metal-contaminated soils, organic carbon sources are widely applied. These organic sources can improve overall soil health by enhancing its physiochemical properties and fertility level. In the present study, WSB, CSB, and Comp were applied @ 0.5% OC to investigate the effects on wheat and rice growth, physiological properties, and Cd uptake. Among all applied treatments, the WSB was found to be most effective in improving crop growth and physiological attributes as well as effectively decreased Cd translocation into plant tissue. The current data addresses that WSB is an effective organic amendment for the remediation of Cd-contaminated soils receiving sewage water for irrigation. On the other hand, rice is not a suitable crop for the Cd-contaminated soils even applying some organic amendments as it accumulates more metal (due to higher application and uptake of water). As far as crop economics is concerned, though biochar application for 1 year is not economical, long-term effects of biochar will ultimately make the system profitable as it is almost a one-time investment. The economic viability of these amendments specially biochar needs to be more focused. It is a good option if we decrease its production cost.
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This work is taken from a thesis published by Maqsooda Waqar and Mr. Shahjahan. We would like to formally acknowledge UAF for the necessary provision of finance, working space, and required materials for research. We would also like to acknowledge Dr. Muhammad Farooq Qayyum who assisted us in the formulation of biochar at the BZU station. We also like to acknowledge the farm owners at Multan who assisted us in different field operations during our research.
The finance for research execution was provided by the host university (UAF).
This article is part of the Topical Collection on Implications of Biochar Application to Soil Environment under Arid Conditions
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ur Rehman, M.Z., Waqar, M., Bashir, S. et al. Effect of biochar and compost on cadmium bioavailability and its uptake by wheat–rice cropping system irrigated with untreated sewage water: a field study. Arab J Geosci 14, 135 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12517-020-06383-7
- Cadmium stress
- Cd immobilization