We are doing science for policy
The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.
Today, World Soil Day, by coincidence marks the conclusion of the soil component of Eurostat's 2018 Land Use/Cover Area Frame Survey (LUCAS), the largest ever consistent survey of European soils. Coordinated by the JRC, the survey aims to assess the condition of soil across the EU and better understand the impacts of pressures arising from how land is used.
As the only harmonised and repeated assessment of soils for the entire EU, LUCAS is a major source of data for national and regional statistical indicators (e.g. SDGs) and policy issues that affect the environment, climate, agriculture and health.
The 2018 survey is the third carried out since 2009, and is the biggest yet. Following the analysis of all the soil samples, the LUCAS database will contain millions of records that will help characterise the state of soil in the EU and trends in key parameters that influence soil health, fertility and the provision of life-critical ecosystem services.
LUCAS 2018, and what it can tell us
The JRC coordinates the soil module of LUCAS on behalf of Eurostat and other European Commission departments.
The 2018 survey is the biggest ever. It involved the collection of around 30 000 samples of soil by more than 500 surveyors, amounting to about 15 tonnes of soil in total. Each soil sample was then analysed for a range of key parameters (e.g. organic carbon, nutrient and salt content, heavy metals).
The 2018 survey saw the introduction of a number of novel aspects. These included the collection of 1 000 samples that were sent to the JRC and frozen within 24 hours of collection. These samples will be used to define an indicator of soil biodiversity based on the DNA extracted from the soil. The aim is to match the diversity of soil organisms to land management practices and soil contamination. This exercise is more than an order of magnitude greater than any previous study.
Surveyors were also asked to measure the bulk density of the soil in 9 000 locations. These data will be used to calculate the stocks of soil carbon, water holding capacity and, in time, vulnerability to compaction by agricultural machinery. In addition, the survey controlled the depth of peat soils and looked for both signs of soil erosion and measures used by farmers to combat erosion.
Samples will also be analysed for the residues of plant protection products (e.g. pesticides, herbicides), veterinary products and the presence of antibiotic-resistant genes. A test will be carried out to investigate the presence of micro-plastics in soil, thought to be much greater than what is found in water!
What has soil ever done for us?
Let's face it – soil is pretty fundamental to life as we know it.
If there's no soil, there's no food. Soil supports the roots of plants and provides access to essential nutrients, water and oxygen. The next time you sit down to eat, think about how soil contributes to your meal! Remember that animals also need fertile soils for their feed, so be sure to count your dairy products as well as your meat, fruit and vegetables. It may surprise you that, in the EU, an estimated 99% of daily calories are derived from soil-based products.
In parallel, soils are a critical part of the hydrological cycle. By storing water, soils can moderate the risk and impact of floods. Soils can buffer and transform substances, thereby protecting us from the effects of pollution and contributing to water purification.
Soils can help mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Agricultural soils in the EU contain around 14 billion tonnes of carbon in the topsoil (equivalent to 51 billion tonnes of CO2), which is much more than the 4.4 billion tonnes of carbon greenhouse gasses emitted annually by EU Member States, which is why we need to keep it locked in the ground.
As a habitat in its own right, soil also influences aboveground biodiversity by acting as seed banks of plant species, in regulating plant community composition and aboveground pests and pathogens, and in controlling plant abundance and invasiveness.
Finally, soil has high cultural value, underpinning iconic landscapes and preserving artefacts from our past.
Soil and EU agriculture
World Soil Day is also the eve of the 2018 EU Agricultural Outlook Conference, which will be opened by the Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan. The conference is the key annual gathering of stakeholders, who come together engage and discuss on the future of agriculture in Europe, including the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Soil condition is very much at the heart of the debate on the reform of the CAP. In this context, DG AGRI and the JRC have developed a specific briefing on soil and agriculture that can be downloaded from here:
- CAP Specific Objectives explained - Brief No 5: Efficient Soil Management