On the road to healthier and more sustainable soil

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The soil is home to about a quarter of all living species. Credit: Amadeu Biasco, Shutterstock

If we are to move towards a greener, healthier and more climate resilient Europe, it is important to ensure that our soils are in good condition. However, soil quality is deteriorating due to unsustainable management practices, resource depletion, climate change and pollution.

Soil is home to a quarter of our planet’s biodiversity and is home to about a quarter of all living species. But how many of us think about this precious resource?

We should, because soil directly or indirectly produces about 95% of our food. Soil is important in many other ways as well. It provides us with raw materials to fight disease and the ecosystem services that purify our drinking water, reduce the risk of floods and droughts, and store huge amounts of carbon to mitigate climate change.

Life warehouse

Soil biodiversity is the life that exists in the soil, from bacteria to earthworms. These living organisms keep the soil healthy and fertile. Soil biodiversity is essential to achieve the objectives of the European Green Deal such as climate neutrality, restoration of biodiversity, zero pollution, healthy and sustainable food systems and a resilient environment.

The EU wants to lead the transition to healthy soils for food, people, nature and climate by 2030. One of the problems is that around 970 million tonnes of soil are lost due to the erosion every year in Europe.

If this underground treasure is so important to us, then why do we allow it to be destroyed? Repairing or reversing the damage to rich but fragile soil habitat takes decades, if not centuries. We need to preserve the quality of the soil before it is too late.

Soil health is a major concern for the committee. It therefore adopts a new strategy for soils in 2021 and lays the foundations for a common European framework to preserve, protect and restore soils. In addition, a Horizon Europe mission will lead the transition to healthy soils for people, nature and climate by 2030.

Mechanisms that determine the structure of the soil

One third of the world’s soil is degraded. This means that the quality of the soil decreases and loses some of its ability to support animals and plants. Soil biodiversity is a major contributor to soil health. Understanding the relationship between biodiversity and soil function is important to improve strategies for restoring degraded soils.

The soil food web – a web of food chains connecting organisms that live in the soil – is a good place to start. “Forage relationships are important for soil structure, suggesting that stimulating recolonization of degraded soils by various communities of organisms will promote ecological engineering of soil structure and therefore restore soil habitat. Explained Professor Stefan Scheu, head of animal ecology at the Johann-Friedrich-Blumenbach Institute for Zoology and Anthropology at the University of Göttingen in Germany. This main discovery is the result of the AGG-REST-WEB project hosted by him and coordinated by Dr Amandine Erktan.

Using the food web to expand our understanding of soils can also help fight climate change. Food relationship research may one day allow us to better predict how changes in land management practices affect soil carbon storage. “We still do not fully understand the mechanisms that lead to carbon storage in soils,” noted Professor Dr Scheu. Some soils receive a lot of organic matter (plant and animal debris) but store little carbon, while others receive relatively little and store large amounts. Most organic matter in soils is not accessible to soil organisms, which increases carbon storage.

“Farmers are the guardians of the European countryside,” said Dr David Fernández Calviño, researcher in the Department of Plant Biology and Soil Sciences at the University of Vigo, Spain. “The tools and methods they use play a major role in safeguarding soil biodiversity. From universities, research centers and industry to non-profit organizations, agricultural cooperatives and public administrations, he works with a wide range of stakeholders to explore soil biodiversity in nine regions of Europe as as coordinator of the SoildiverAgro project.

Cutting-edge management approaches for better soils

Several innovative management practices and cropping systems are currently being tested in the field to protect, improve or increase soil biodiversity. Dr Fernández Calviño studies optimal crop rotations and multiple crops and is testing different alternatives to trap crops – plants that attract pests, usually insects, away from neighboring crops. In addition, it is implementing a pest alert system to reduce the use of fungicides in potato and wheat crops.

Knowledge of the links between soil biodiversity and agriculture is still limited, which hinders the integration of biodiversity into agricultural practices. One effective method, however, is biocontrol, which uses natural “enemies” like microorganisms and insects to control pests and diseases. Another promising approach is the use of biofertilizers, which contain living microorganisms that improve the growth and yield of a plant, as an alternative to synthetic chemical fertilizers.

“Agronomic practices that adopt such approaches aim to reduce the input of chemicals and synthetic products into crops, especially the soil ecosystem, thereby promoting soil health, food security and a more sustainable approach. of agriculture, while guaranteeing yield and productivity, “observed biologist Dr. Stefano Mocali. Dr Mocali, a researcher at the Council for Agricultural Research and Economics, Italy’s leading agribusiness research organization based in Rome, is developing a new soil management strategy to improve the efficiency of biocontrol and biofertilization practices in the agriculture as coordinator of the EXCALIBUR project. The proposed strategy exploits the potential of soil biodiversity.

The use of bio-based products will increase the storage of carbon dioxide in the soil through better plant growth and larger populations of microorganisms in the soil. “These results mitigate the effects of climate change on the environment,” said Dr Mocali.

Quantifying the benefits of soil biodiversity

Another major challenge is the assessment of soil biodiversity. However, there is no specific or standard framework to measure it in all its complexity. “A global standard is needed to avoid knowledge fragmentation,” noted Dr Salvador Lladó, senior researcher at the private, non-profit Leitat technology center in Barcelona, ​​Spain.

Dr Lladó is also the technical and scientific coordinator of the SOILGUARD project, which mobilizes 25 university and industrial partners in 17 countries around the world to stimulate the sustainable use of soil biodiversity. They are co-developing a holistic framework that will assess the environmental, economic and social value contained in soils.

The information gathered from the framework will be made available in an application. From farmers and landowners to policy makers, users of the app will be able to assess, diagnose and predict the state of soil biodiversity. For example, a farmer who wants to switch from conventional to organic management can use the app to produce a comprehensive report on soil biodiversity and the provision of soil-based ecosystem services under current soil management practices. soil management. The app will also recommend region-specific strategies to increase environmental, economic and social well-being.


Research initiative to create a framework for sustainable management of climate-smart agricultural soils


Provided by Horizon: the European magazine for research and innovation

Quote: On the road to healthier and more sustainable soil (2021, September 24) retrieved September 24, 2021 from https://phys.org/news/2021-09-healthier-sustainable-soil.html

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