Connecting soil data and agricultural management policies

There is a need for compilation and translation of research into applicable and manageable recommendations for more sustainable use of soils, say members of the Swiss National Hub.

Switzerland is well aware of the value of agricultural soils as an important natural resource. Yet there is a clear disconnection between soil data and agricultural management policies. Swiss policy makers, scientists, and practitioners are taking the necessary steps to improve this connection.

Agriculture in Switzerland has a multitude of societal and challenging goals

The agricultural goals in Switzerland include producing food and supplies to meet the demands of the growing population, using sustainable production methods, providing beauty and diversity to the landscapes, and maintaining rural livelihoods. These goals are ambitious for any country. In Switzerland the goals are especially difficult to achieve due to environmental constraints like high proportion of land with steep slopes, unfavorable climate conditions in the mountainous regions, and relatively small farm sizes, which make utilization of large-scale industrial equipment difficult (average farm size in 2018 was 20.5 ha).  

In order to meet the multitude of goals, various policy measures are taken to ensure that as many farmers as possible employ environmentally friendly agricultural management practices. Not surprisingly, many of these policies are targeted towards ensuring the sustainability of soils. Michael Zimmermann, a Scientific Officer for the Department of Agri-environmental Systems and Nutrients in the Federal Office for Agriculture, is responsible for topics concerning quantitative aspects of soil use at the governmental level. In his view, soil compaction, erosion, loss of soil organic matter and contamination by inorganic and organic compounds are some of the main agricultural soil challenges facing Switzerland. Gudrun Schwilch, the Head of the Soil Department in the Federal Office for the Environment, echoes this sentiment. As prominent figures in the Swiss government, both Michael and Gudrun work hard to help overcome these challenges, in part by helping introduce agricultural policies that foster the implementation of environmentally friendly agricultural practices.

The combination of management practices is influenced by many factors

The practices must adhere to general environmental regulations from the Federal Office for the Environment, which aim to protect waterways, reduce risk of chemical contamination, and generally protect the soil. Beyond these general and qualitative guidelines, farmers are financially incentivized to follow further and more well defined environmentally friendly management practices by receiving subsidies for engaging in one or more governmentally approved methods. For example, at the federal level, if farmers wish to be eligible to receive subsidies, there are a series of basic practices that must be followed, which are outlined in the Proof of Ecological Performance (PEP) guidelines.

Once these conditions are met, farmers can then receive subsidies for performing one or several additional management practices, in a program called “Direktzahlung.” For example, under the category “efficient use of resources”, farmers can receive subsidies for reducing or eliminating the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, as well as adopting one of three different reduced or no-till practices: no-till i.e. direct seeding, reduced tillage, and strip tillage. In addition, there are also subsidies given for “soil-friendly production systems”, which promote extensive crop management or organic farming. The farmers are paid a specific annual amount per hectare of land under such practices. In the most recent survey, 9,125 farms, covering an area of 70,868 ha engaged in at least one of the above reduced tillage practices in order to qualify for the subsidies. One of the main goals of enacting such practices is to maintain, or perhaps even increase, soil organic matter (SOM).

“Soil organic matter is key to soil fertility and acts directly as protective measure against compaction and erosion. Furthermore, adequate soil organic matter levels help to mitigate and adapt to climate change,” says Michael. Gudrun adds, “Soil organic matter is a no-regret solution, as it serves both to maintain and enhance soil quality as well as to mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

Direct effects on soil are not yet known

Despite the many environmentally beneficial management practices in place across Switzerland, their direct effects on soil are not readily known. This is because soil data collected as part of national and regional monitoring campaigns is not assessed in a way to measure effects of these different management practices on soil quality indicators. For example, the National Soil Monitoring Program collects soils from roughly 100 sites across Switzerland, and measures primarily soil physical and chemical properties (i.e. pH, texture, contaminants, etc.), although additional biological parameters are beginning to be measured as well. The “Agri-environmental Monitoring” program annually collects soils from roughly 350 farms and measures a variety of management based indicators as a way to describe the effect of agricultural policy on soil quality. Additionally, many cantons have their own Cantonal Soil Information System, although the information collected in each canton is different and not regulated at the national level.

Given the fact that quantitative soil data linking the effect of management practices on soil parameters is either scarce or missing, it is not possible to determine which of these many practices, and in what combination, are contributing to the preservation of our soils, nor to what degree.

“I see a big gap from research to policy makers and farmers. We have to improve the knowledge transfer massively,” says Michael. “Furthermore,” Gudrun adds, “we need simple and easily applicable indicators to measure progress towards national policy goals.”

Both Gudrun and Michael are involved in EJP Soil as members of the Swiss National Hub representing the needs and views from the policy-making viewpoint.

Joint research outcomes into practice

In May 2020, the Swiss federal council decided on a 'National Soil Strategy' that outlines the main threats and opportunities for soil resources in Switzerland. This comes hand in hand with the introduction of the Soil Competence Center, which was funded by the Swiss government in 2019, and has the goal to improve the enforcement of sustainable use and effective protection measures for soil resources. They plan to first collect and harmonize all available soil data across the country. Once completed, they will begin to standardize national survey and analysis methods, develop standardized technical standards for soil mapping, develop a much-needed national information and service platform, and eventually use this integrated system to develop methods for evaluating soil information, which can then help to inform agricultural policies.

“We need easily understandable recommendations for policy makers and easy to use tools for farmers that allow them to evaluate and adapt their agricultural practices to improve SOM levels,” say Michael Zimmermann and Gudrun Schwilch.

By being involved with EJP Soil, both Gudrun and Michael see a strong possibility to put current and future research outcomes into practice. They hope that EJP Soil will be able to compile and translate previous research results from the numerous national and European soil research projects into applicable and manageable recommendations for more sustainable use of soils in Switzerland and Europe in general.