Soil study digs deep to improve land management
Our soil is a vital environmental resource which is increasingly coming under threat. EU-funded research is assessing the impact of soil degradation on a range of ecosystem services to find ways of protecting and restoring soils across Europe.
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Soil is an extremely complex, variable and living medium that performs many vital functions, including food production and providing a habitat for plant and animal life. It is also an essentially non-renewable resource that can disappear quickly and takes several thousand years to rebuild naturally.
There is growing concern about the multiple threats to soil quality in Europe from factors such as erosion, loss of organic matter, compaction, salinisation, landslides, contamination and sealing. Some of these processes are natural, but most are caused or exacerbated by human activity and have negative impacts on human health and natural ecosystems, as well as on our economy and future food security.
The EU-funded RECARE project set out to develop a methodology to assess the state of soil degradation as a starting point for finding effective solutions to protect and restore soils across Europe. Soil is responsible for food and other biomass production, as well as storage, filtration and transformation of many substances including water, carbon and nitrogen.
Our aim is to showcase alternative land-use strategies, demonstrate the benefits and prove that things can really get better if we prioritise responsible land-management approaches, explains project coordinator Coen Ritsema of Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
Template for soil remediation
Although there is already a large body of knowledge about soil threats in Europe, it is fragmented and incomplete. The RECARE project developed an integrated assessment model which can scale up findings to the EU level to inform policymakers and land users about suitable alternative land-use strategies.
Researchers assessed the current state of degradation and conservation of soils at case study sites, then quantified the impact on soil functions and ecosystem services. The team evaluated prevention, remediation and restoration measures selected and implemented by stakeholders and assessed their applicability and impact at the European level. Finally, they reviewed existing national and EU policies to identify potential contradictions and synergies.
By the end of the project, a significant number of innovative protection, remediation and restoration measures will have been tested for all soil threats in Europe, the results of which will be published.
The information gathered so far is available in numerous scientific papers and through the RECARE Dissemination and Communication Hub which is accessible online. The information includes modelling of land-use strategies, soil threats, socio-economic factors of different remediation approaches, recommended technology and policy scenarios.
A tailored approach
Through 16 case studies, looking at a wide variety of soil threats, we worked closely with all the different stakeholders to identify the best ways to improve the use and management of the land and minimise soil threats, says Ritsema. By combining local knowledge with our scientific knowledge, we were able to fine-tune, tailor and test approaches for each specific situation.
During the project, particular concern was expressed about the impact of diffuse pollution by agrochemicals, specifically pesticides. Farmers are worried about the cumulative effect of agrochemicals on soil biodiversity as a result of continuous applications on the land.
This issue is addressed in the iSQAPER project, which is building on the knowledge gained in RECARE. iSQAPER will lead to the creation of a soil-quality app which will give farmers information on soil properties and threats and provide recommendations for better soil management.