Digital data enables better soil management
When one thinks of the limited resources of agriculture, water is normally the first that comes to mind. The bad news is that, like water, soil is a finite resource that deteriorates rapidly as a result of human activity. The good news: Research is giving farmers, landowners and policymakers new tools to turn the tide.
Digitization is a game-changer in many sectors – and agriculture is no exception. For years, technological innovations have helped farmers work more efficiently and sustainably. Now, data-driven insights can also guide them to improve soil health – the most critical part of successful farming.
It is important to ensure that farmers and landowners have the tools and know-how to understand the performance of their soil. The same is true of information on what actions they can take to improve the health of their soils and which ones they should avoid. Policymakers also need data to formulate policies that promote healthy soils at all levels.
Where is the data?
For years, countries around the world have collected data on their soils and found strategies to optimize agriculture. In Austria, for example, there is a lot of research on conservation agriculture, an agricultural system that disturbs the soil as little as possible (i.e. no plowing) and stimulates natural biological processes underground. This leads to healthier soil and more efficient agricultural production. Long-term experiments are also being conducted in Murcia, Spain, where researchers are studying the effects of under-irrigation of vines as a way to make best use of a limited water supply.
Data from these local experiences can play an important role in the global quest to improve our soils by providing important information on agricultural strategies that work – or do not work – in specific geographic and climatic contexts.
The problem is that much of this data is not readily available for others to use or harmonized at EU level. âThere are many reasons for this,â said Dr Jose Alfonso GÃ³mez of the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (IAS) in Spain. “It’s not that people hide their data, it’s just that they don’t have an incentive to share it.”
Dr GÃ³mez is speaking from the perspective of the research community when he says this. Making the scientific data we already have available to other researchers for use and inspiration is the first step in getting a big picture of the state of the world’s soil and what can happen. be done to reverse negative trends.
An EU-China collaboration on the sustainable management of water and soil resources, led by Dr GÃ³mez, is currently working to do just that. Led by the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, the SHui project is building a database where the results of long-term experiments will be downloaded and visualized on a map.
“To improve soil health and water scarcity, the work of academics is not the most important thing that is missing,” said Dr Jose Alfonso GÃ³mez of the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (IAS ). âWe need to put data and knowledge in the hands of the people who are going to use it, the farmers, the policymakers, the businesses. “
It is a very useful tool for researchers who study the soil. Suppose, for example, that you are an agronomist studying vine crops in an area where water is scarce, such as Greece, and you want data from an area with similar climatic conditions to compare your own results. The three irrigation deficit experiments in Murcia could be useful, suggested Dr GÃ³mez. âIf you go to the location of these experiments on the map, you can download the soil type, climate and yield data that they found when applying deficit irrigation techniques and complete irrigation. “
A second data challenge is now also apparent: The average farmer and landowner, having found the data from all of these research projects, is unlikely to be able to understand and use it on their own. land. This is a challenge that Dr. GÃ³mez is well aware of. âTo improve soil health and water scarcity, the work of academics is not the most important thing missing. We need to put data and knowledge in the hands of the people who will use it: farmers, policy makers and businesses, âhe said.
There is an application for that !
This is a key point which is also raised by Dr Luuk Fleskens from Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands. Although there is a wealth of data and information produced on sustainable soil management, he explained that “it is often fragmented and seldom suited to land users and managers”.
Not to mention that sustainable soil management involves examining a complex set of factors that differ depending on climate, geographic location, soil type and many other parameters. âIn addition to this, and perhaps more importantly, there is a need to approach soil quality issues in a holistic way,â said Dr Fleskens. âMaybe a farmer is not aware that besides a specific problem they are facing, there are other soil parameters or threats to the soil that can explain why their soil is performing poorly. “
Enter the SQAPP, an app designed for farmers that Dr Fleskens and his colleagues in the iSQAPER project have developed. âIt brings together digital soil information in a convenient location and format for end users to learn more about soils and sustainable soil management options,â Dr Fleskens explained.
The application data was collected by the project researchers. They compared soils cultivated in similar ways in similar climates and found that certain management techniques made the soil healthier than others.
There is a need to approach soil quality issues holistically. Maybe a farmer is not aware that besides a specific problem they are facing, there are other parameters or threats to the soil that can explain why their soil is performing poorly.
Dr Luuk Fleskens from Wageningen University and Research
To use the app, farmers simply need to insert the location of the land whose soil quality they want to know. The app then provides a list of soil properties, such as its salinity, organic matter content, and any threats to the land, and recommends measures to improve soil quality, ranging from new farming methods to irrigation techniques. .
Eliminate the complexities
The SQAPP app helps farmers improve their soil quality and identify emerging risks, ultimately helping them to make their farms more efficient without adding additional stress to the environment. This is important in the grand scheme of improving the earth’s soil since it promotes awareness and action by the actors who manage our territory.
For Dr GÃ³mez, building trust with farmers and putting in place a system to integrate their feedback on what works and what does not work in practice is another crucial way for research and development actions. innovation have a concrete impact on the agricultural sector.
While agriculture often gets all the attention in discussions of soil management, food production is actually just one of the many ‘functions’ that we rely on our soils to perform: they also regulate and purify. our water, store carbon that helps mitigate the effects of climate change, provide a home for a wide range of animals and plants, and enable the sustainable cycling of nutrients. In order to truly ensure that we are getting the most out of our land, all of these essential soil functions need to be taken into account.
In Europe, this is precisely what the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has attempted to do. It aims both to manage land for food production and to support essential environmental functions of the soil. However, there is still room to improve policy coherence, especially in light of new emerging priorities.
The LANDMARK project researchers wanted to understand how the political landscape could be simplified and adapted to the specific interests and conditions of different countries. By examining how countries actually use their land, the project found great variations across Europe. For example, in Portugal the greatest demand on soil is placed on its ability to regulate water, while in Ireland they are more interested in the soil’s ability to store carbon. Many of these differences are related to the farming system, soil type, population size, and other factors specific to each country. This raises the question of whether all soils can be expected to perform the same functions to an equal extent, or whether a more targeted approach is needed.
Based on data from 94 sites in 13 countries across Europe, LANDMARK researchers found that while soil from a single site can provide multiple functions, the synergies and trade-offs between focusing on one function of the soil rather than another are often nonlinear as they are influenced by local conditions such as soil type and climate. “For example, a synergistic relationship existed between biodiversity and climate regulation in some European regions, such as Pannonia, while under Atlantic conditions this relationship is negative in grassland systems,” said Dr Rachel Creamer of the ‘University of Wageningen and coordinator of the LANDMARK project. This finding supports the need for tailored approaches to sustainable land management based on local conditions.
Fortunately for European farmers, the new CAP period 2023-2027 will give countries more flexibility in deciding how they want to manage their land. In the future, each Member State will develop its own national strategic plan for the CAP explaining how it will contribute to the environmental, climate and biodiversity protection commitments of the European Green Deal. This ânew way of workingâ will give countries the freedom to prioritize the combinations of soil and land management that are most relevant to the way they use their land. The findings of the LANDMARK project indicate that this is probably a very good approach and can be a step on the way to achieving the objectives of the EU mission on the ground.
This article originally appeared in Horizon, the European magazine for research and innovation.