Looking below the surface to improve the quality of soil
For years, intensive farming and pesticides have been eroding the earth's nutrients and biodiversity. However, an EU-funded project has developed an app to make it easier for farmers to improve the quality - and competitiveness - of their land.
© Budimir Jevtic #207127618, 2019 source: stock.adobe.com
The past 20 years have seen agricultural production increase three-fold to feed the planets growing population. But to meet demand, many farmers have relied on chemicals, multiple harvests and new drainage systems measures that are damaging the earths soil.
If the decline in soil quality is not halted, scientists are warning that more and more land could be stripped of its nutrients. Vast amounts of lifeless soil could jeopardise the planets ability to grow crops, threatening our future food security.
To tackle this problem, the EU-funded project iSQAPER has launched a mobile app to advise farmers and land managers on how they can preserve and improve the health of their soil.
Thanks to the free app, called SQAPP, users can enter their location to find out about the properties of the soil, such as its acidity or alkalinity (pH) and any threats affecting the land, including water erosion. The app will then recommend measures to increase soil quality in that specific area, with advice ranging from new farming methods to irrigation techniques.
Project coordinator, Luuk Fleskens, of Wageningen University in the Netherlands believes innovation is crucial for the future of agriculture. We have basically hit the productivity limits of our soil. Farming it even more intensively would not be without significant environmental impacts, he says. We need to find smarter ways of farming that are more environmentally sustainable.
Expertise at farmers fingertips
While several soil apps already exist, it is SQAPPs tailored, cost-effective recommendations which make it particularly innovative. The software also generates a percentage score that rates the soils potential for improvement.
To make these features possible, the project researchers analysed huge amounts of data, comparing soils that were farmed in similar ways, in similar climates. By putting one areas soil in a global context, they were able to examine management techniques which made some soil healthier than others.
Feeding this information into the app enables farmers to immediately access information about how their soil could be improved. App users can also enter data about their own soil to add to the projects global bank of knowledge.
SQAPPs advice is not only helping land managers to improve their soils quality in the long term but is also helping them to remain competitive in a global market place since improving the quality of the soil simultaneously improves the quality of what it produces.
This commercial edge has boosted the appeal of the app, which was launched in July 2018, across borders and continents. To date, SQAPP has been downloaded by more than 600 people, ranging from the Netherlands, China, Mexico, the United States and Estonia.
Researchers behind the project hope that SQAPP can inform more people about declining soil quality before it is too late. The climate issue has gained global awareness, says Fleskens. Poor soil quality should also be recognised more widely, as future food and water security and biodiversity can only be secured with healthy soils.
While the app has been released to major app stores, the Wageningen University team is planning to update the software in the coming months. Fleskens hopes the new and improved version will teach even more people to value their soil and get the best from it.