Main authors: Thorfinn Stainforth, Catherine Bowyer, Luuk Fleskens, Jane Brandt
iSQAPERiS editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: Stainforth et al. (2020) Integrated soil quality assessment - good quality soils support environmental protection, climate action and rural development: the iSQAPER Toolkit - H2020 Research conclusions for policy makers. iSQAPER Project Deliverable 8.4, 18 pp


“Soil Quality is the capacity of a soil to function within ecosystem and land-use boundaries to sustain biological productivity, maintain environmental quality, and promote plant and animal health” (Doran and Parkin, 1994). A soil of good quality “has the capacity to fulfil multiple functions, such as promoting plant growth, preventing water pollution, growing food, promoting biodiversity, sequestering carbon, and many others, within the boundaries given by site conditions” Bünemann, E. K. et al. (2018).

Soils perform many production and ecosystem and climate regulation functions. The quality of agricultural soils (in particular arable soils) is decreasing and is of concern both for the delivery of environmental, development and economic and social goals. According to the European Environment Agency, “if we continue using this resource as we currently do, we will also reduce soil’s ability, among others, to produce enough feed and food fit for human consumption.” (Bongiorno 2020). The EEA’s State and Outlook for the European Environment Report for 2020 assesses the condition of soils in Europe to be deteriorating, and not on track to meet environmental goals in the sector for either 2020 and 2030, partly as a result of intensive agriculture (EEA 2019b). In its outlook to 2030, the report warns “the underlying drivers of soil degradation are not projected to change favourably, so the functionality of soils is under even more pressure.” However, soil’s ability to perform ecosystem and climate regulation functions will be central to our ability to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the European Green Deal. The transformation of the agricultural sector to provide for sustainable food production and the promotion of a successful bioeconomy will be an important part of these strategies (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1

Improving soil quality can reduce inputs of artificial fertilisers, increase crop pathogen control, promote soil carbon sequestration, increase soil water retention, promote biodiversity and in so doing increase resilience to future climate change. To deliver change it is necessary to assess our soil’s current condition, understand what parameters need improvement, make informed land management choices and evaluate the impact of that change. To perform this soil quality assessment, it is critical to understand the status quo, the trajectory of change and how to promote continual improvement over time.

The heterogeneity of soil types, climatic conditions, land use, and farming systems necessitates that soil quality assessment allows for location-specific information to be developed to inform management choices that are differentiated and tailored to best address location specific challenges. Critically, any assessment and soil monitoring system needs to combine information on environmental conditions and knowledge about existing land management to support improved decision making.

Under iSQAPER new maps developing pedoclimatic zones as a basis for examining soil questions were created (Tóth et al. 2016). Data connecting land management decisions to soil quality often remains absent or unattributed spatially. This means our understanding of the extent of adoption of land management practices, the interaction with soil characteristics and the consequences for soil quality are currently difficult to analyse. This is slowing the pace of scientific progress and limiting policy makers’ ability make informed choices. In addition, it impedes social learning about best management practices at European and international level.

Soil quality is multi-faceted, it cannot be achieved by the delivery of a single parameter or single goal. It is about delivering soils that, through their characteristics allow multiple environmental and production goals to be achieved collectively. This is important to consider in the context of future policy action on soils, in order not to focus on the opportunities through a single lens i.e. maximising their carbon storage for climate, while failing to focus on their broader water quality, climate adaptation and biodiversity roles or ignoring their importance in biomass production or cost-effectiveness considerations. While heterogeneous, the achievement of soil quality at scale requires an integrated intervention, including policy support, but also improved assessment protocols and monitoring regimes.

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