EJP SOIL is an opportunity for Spain to strengthening research in agricultural soils

Identification of research gaps, support compilation of soil data, increased knowledge sharing and enhanced cooperation between soil scientists, advisors, farmers and policy makers. These are some of the Spanish anticipations of the activities in EJP SOIL.

INIA´s agricultural experimental field station ‘La Canaleja’, Photo by José Luis Gabriel.

In Spain, nearly 9% of GDP is linked to the primary sector and the majority of food production is concentrated in semi-arid areas subject to a high risk of soil loss due to erosion. Inadequate agricultural practices have a negative impact on the quality of soil and water, affecting coastal areas, and the atmosphere, through the emission of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants.

Healthy soils for a sustainable future

Soil is a non-renewable natural resource on which life in our planet depends. It represents a source of food, textile fibres and wood. Moreover, it is the broadest water purification network and a habitat for microorganisms responsible for the correct functioning of biogenic cycles that allow life itself.

As a non-renewable resource, regeneration of just 3 millimetres of new soil requires a century. The soil is under enormous and increasing production pressure as it will be the sustenance to feed the nearly 10 billion people, which is the estimated population in 2050.

Preserving healthy soil provides safe food and the global sustainability

Soil is a dynamic system with important physic-chemical and biological balances. The complex number of reactions happening in it constitutes the biggest reactor of our planet, which is necessary for water depuration and clean recharge of the aquifers. The role of plants in atmospheric CO2 capture is critical, especially in relation to climate change. Less known is that nearly 20% of the carbon captured is stored in the soil as organic matter.

Appropriate knowledge and management of soil is recommended by the United Nations to avoid promoting the emission of different greenhouse effect gases during tillage practices.

Our planet´s biodiversity comprises not only one macroscopic visible side, but also a microscopic one, which can be significantly found in soil. In this sense a sole gram of soil of any place on Earth fosters between hundreds and 100 million microorganisms, with such biodiversity that it can be considered the engine that keeps biogenic cycles of elements active. For this reason, preserving healthy soil or “recovering” it when deteriorated is not only a way of obtaining safe food and enjoying our landscapes, but also essential for the global sustainability of our planet.

Everyone´s responsibility to manage soil properly for future generations

Soil health can benefit a lot from sustainable agricultural practices. Different cropping techniques have been proposed in this regard based on sound research experiments, some of them extending over decades. However, their application is not straight forward as its successful implementation largely depends on pedoclimatic conditions, the agri-systems hosting them, and local conditions. Moreover, if not properly applied their beneficial effects may be offset by detrimental impacts on water quality (through nutrient leaching) and on the atmosphere, by enhancing greenhouse gas emissions.

In the frame of United Nations Climate Change Conference that took place in Madrid in 2019, several programs related to Soil Health were presented. The European Commission introduced the future EU research and innovation framework program, Horizon Europe, the Green Deal, and the Missions, highlighting research, development and innovation as key elements for sustainable food production in healthy soils. The issue of healthy soil has a global dimension, not only because of the production pressure induced by population growth, but also because cultures in unhealthy soils are more susceptible to disease and plague, which might reduce crop yield up to a 20 or 30%, leading to famines. Food shortage may lead to massive people flows towards areas of greater food production, causing the collapse of the system due to soil depletion, deterioration in water quality and overpopulation in large cities.

Scientific knowledge is yet to be integrated into commercial practices in Spain

Several factors may explain this lack of implementation. The implementation of scientific knowledge is very fragmented. There is a major gap between researchers and farmers, which generally prevents the co-design based on the mutual knowledge and the adaptation of the proposed measures to local conditions. Other identified factors are the lack of appropriate communication of scientific results, cultural barriers, and inadequate regulations or incentive policies.

It is highly important to promote strategies that reduce environmental impact of food production in Spain. Spanish policy makers need to consider different approaches and technologies, and contribute to building a climate-smart sustainable agriculture, which will consolidate the relevant role of Spanish agriculture in Europe´s pantry. As mentioned, these strategies need to be adapted to the varying pedoclimatic and local conditions. This is a major challenge for Spain due to its agricultural- pedoclimatic-, ecologic- and orographic-heterogeneity that overlaps with a de-centralized political system.

Unique opportunity for Spain to strengthen the scientific community related to agricultural soil research

EJP SOIL represents an opportunity to support the compilation of the existing databases and help in speed up knowledge application by enhancing the cooperation between farmers, advisers and scientists. Furthermore, it is an opportunity to identify research gaps and provide an adequate framework of debate with scientific, agricultural and environmental authorities. Moreover, EJP SOIL provides a forum for knowledge sharing, comparing and debating with European colleagues about the suitability of the proposed measures and best practices related to knowledge co-creation and transfer in science-policy relationships.

The Spanish participation in EJP SOIL is articulated around the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (MICINN), which has designated the National Institute of Agricultural and Food Research and Technology (INIA) as partner and manager of the program in our country. It also has the support of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) as a third party involved. We are now in the process of establishing the National Hub of this EJP, which is where major relevant Spanish stakeholders will be represented. The Spanish research community is already enthusiastically participating in EJP SOIL activities, and very much committed to cooperate with its European mates.

We look forward to helping in the development of EJP SOIL in the near future, in order to support the competitiveness of the European agri-food system and the preservation of the environment.

Rocío Lansac and Juan Luis Ramos, from INIA and CSIC respectively, represent the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation in the Horizon Europe Subgroup for the Missions at the European Commission. Guy Vancanneyt is Deputy Director for Research Prospection at INIA, and the EJP SOIL programme manager for Spain.