The European challenge: Matching scientific knowledge with applicable sustainable management practices to achieve climate smart agriculture

The challenge for European policy makers is to develop efficient agricultural and environmental policies, encompassing soil management that effectively reduces climate impact in different geo-climatic regions, while at the same time bridging the needs and aspirations in food production.

Wheat harvest at La Canaleja Field Station (INIA, Alcalá de Henares, Spain). The experiment consisted on the evaluation of different wheat varieties and crop managements for evaluation of better agricultural practices for nitrogen and water use efficiency under semiarid rain fed conditions on a long-term experiment included in EJP SOIL. Photo by: José Luis Gabriel

The past months, EJP SOIL has involved European and national stakeholders in identifying and mapping current states of knowledge, policies and soil management practices across Europe.

 “A lot of effort is going into stakeholder engagement. We are engaging stakeholders from the bottom up for their opinions to be truly heard and reflected on, for the roadmap”, says David Wall, Senior Researcher - Soil Science at Teagasc, Ireland.

David Wall leads the work focusing on bridging and strengthening the interface between research and practices by establishing open dialogue and active engagement with policymakers. Through interviews, this work seeks to deepen the understanding of policy makers’ needs for new research, data or resources.

Linking knowledge and practice - Bridging research back to end-user

At this point, results show a lot of variability in terms of needs and aspiration at national level. Indications show variation in levels of soils knowledge down to social and economic differences. Political representatives, referred to by others, begin to emerge and engage, improving the understanding of how different countries work; how national policy makers either perceive things from the bottom up or from the top down.

The following examples from engaged partner countries across Europe show a pronounced need for new knowledge and recommendations for policy makers, and a demand for knowledge that is easily implemented and applicable for the end user.

The Ministry of Agriculture in Lithuania anticipates practical outcomes of EJP Soil activities become a baseline for politicians to draw up guidelines for future economic development and for the creation of legislative processes.

In Spain, the implementation of scientific knowledge is very fragmented and improved knowledge transfer to farmers is needed in future. This gap between researchers and farmers prevents the co-design of strategies based on the mutual knowledge for sustainable agriculture and for the adaptation of the proposed measures to local conditions.

With only 3% of arable land, Norway is battling the political dilemma of wanting to support economic growth and development without having to sacrifice valuable agricultural soil to developers. Likewise, the agricultural goals in Switzerland are difficult to achieve due to environmental constraints like high proportion of land with steep slopes, unfavourable climate conditions in the mountainous regions, and relatively small farm sizes. Policy stakeholders in Switzerland draw attention to a big gap in mutual understanding between research, policy makers and farmers. However, at political level, the need to improve knowledge transfer massively is acknowledged.

David Wall stresses that it is not just politicians having their say and dictating the way. The programme is about everybody from farmers, land managers to the people in the middle that are providing advice, to companies, to educators of the future and to the politicians, everybody having the opportunity to engage and say what his or her needs and beliefs are for the future. Based on this, the work to be done at the policy level is to go deeper and look at what these needs mean for each country, and how this will it look in different parts of Europe, and in terms of different geo-climatic regions.

Social conscience waking up – Green policy on the political agenda

Saskia Keesstra, leader of the EJP SOIL roadmap development, gladly repeats that the EJP SOIL programme is all about engaging partner countries and stakeholders across Europe to co-design relevant research projects and complementary activities to produce new knowledge and technologies that is directly applicable for the end-user. The process adheres to the EJP SOIL knowledge framework. A cyclical process of developing new knowledge; knowledge on soils that is shared to build new skills and capacity; knowledge that is harmonised and organised; knowledge that will be applicable in practice at regional, national and European level – with feedback loops feeding back into the continuous cyclical process.

Findings in the work done so far indicate strongly that social conscience has changed. David Wall say that climate change has been on the agenda for a number of decades. It has been turning over in the background; influential people have been talking about it. Now it has made it to politics. It is not just TALK anymore. It used to be only people with a stake that would shout out and raise a fuss.

Now, ordinary people on the street, the voters, are saying, "This is important to us!" They are looking to where they get their energy, their transport, and they are conscious about the products they buy. This has made big industry sit up and realize that they are not going to get away with just lip service. The civil society is demanding evidence.

As an example, David Wall mentions the recent election in Ireland. There was a clear signal that climate change and climate issues were important to the social conscience.

“In the previous national election four years ago”, he says, “This topic was not as prominent and not heavily emphasized in the campaign. Now this topic is high on the new government’s agenda and reflected by the members of the government voted into power”.

Economies and societies are embedded parts of the biosphere

Saskia Keesstra uses the Stockholm resilience model (also called the ‘SDG Wedding cake’) in her work[i] to show that economies and societies are embedded parts of the biosphere. In the diagram below, it is clear that soils play a more important and prominent role in several of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (the call for action by all countries - developed and developing - in a global partnership): SDG15 Life on Land, SDG13 Climate Action and SDG2 Zero Hunger rely heavily on soils as a natural resource.

Diagram 1:  Stockholm resilience model of the 17 SDGs

The diagram illustrates how social, economic, and ecological development are interlinked. Soils are part of the Biosphere, and people who live and work on the land are both in the society and economy parts of this diagram. To find successful sustainable soil management solutions, the relationships between these rings have to be taken into consideration as a whole.

European policy has never stated, “You do something different than your neighbour!”

Europe is not uniform. Some regions have different problem than others e.g. sandy versus heavy boulder clay soils. EJP SOIL uses the Environmental Stratification of Europe (Metzger et al., 2005) indicating the different climatic zones. European policy is a big umbrella and operates the political realm, which tries to be equitable, and non-discriminatory. Politics happens for its own reasons and its own influences. A lot of autonomy is given back to the individual countries - to design their own policies in terms of own circumstances creating the vast variability across European countries. Each country targets regional and national goals and govern in different ways, which is quite right, but how do national goals match e.g. the overarching Sustainable Development Goals?

Nevertheless, it is of interest to ask whether political efforts and means to achieve sustainable soil management targets of one country are reasonable for other areas and regions in Europe or not at all?

“This is a delicate matter from a political perspective as equity comes in to question,” says David Wall, “A European policy does not usually state: You do something different than your neighbour! But if we want to move forward, this is an important question that needs to be asked based on environment, soil type and management contexts.”

The EJP SOIL programme is operating on all political levels. David Wall exemplifies, “It is not like the water agenda, where we can fix our own local or national quality of water. We all rely on the atmosphere for the oxygen we breathe and on its influence on our climate etc. If it becomes enriched with greenhouse gases, it is everybody's problem. In this situation, we won’t get away with the ‘polluter pays principle’. This is a serious global problem. Europe has come together, and all stakeholders are getting involved.”

Read more in the Newsletter articles:

  • Lithuanian political outlook on the development of soil sustainability.
  • EJP SOIL is an opportunity for Spain to strengthening research in agricultural soils
  • Is moving soil the solution in Norway, when agricultural land is built over?
  • Connecting soil data and agricultural management policies (Switzerland)




[i]  Keesstra et al., (2016).  The significance of soils and soil science towards realization of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. SOIL, 2, 111-128.

Keesstra and Visser et al., (2018).  Soil-Related Sustainable Development Goals: Four Concepts to Make Land Degradation Neutrality and Restoration Work. LAND 2018, 133; doi: 10.3390/land7040133

Keesstra and Visser et al., (2019). Soil as a Basis to Create Enabling Conditions for Transitions Towards Sustainable Land Management as a Key to Achieve the SDGs by 2030. Sustainability 2019, 11, 6792; doi:10.3390/su11236792