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Super soil: how LIFE is protecting the Earth’s sensitive skin

We depend on soil for food, water, energy and recreation. Soil also protects us from climate change and boosts biodiversity. Yet this precious resource continues to be degraded by human activities. There are however several LIFE projects that are protecting what lies beneath our feet.

The EU is serious about soil and its Soil Thematic Strategy aims to ensure that Europe’s soils are healthy and can support human activities and ecosystems. And the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 has set out to halt soil degradation and preserve land resources.

Meanwhile, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is holding its annual World Soil Day 2020 on 5 December. To mark the occasion, here are some LIFE projects dedicated to keeping soil alive and protecting its diversity – the theme of this year’s Day.

Boosting soil awareness in three EU countries

Not many people realise how important soil is. To change this mindset, the Soil4Life team has set out to improve government decisions about soil and to raise awareness of its importance among farmers, professionals and the public in Italy, France and Croatia.

The team has a lot of activities planned. It will hold a Festival of Soils for farmers in Rome. Various conferences open to the public will happen in Italy, while fora for environment experts will take place in the partner cities – the first of these was recently held in Zagreb. In Italy, a national soil competition has been launched for students and various workshops are foreseen for teachers.  And for World Soil Day, the partners are holding a Together4Soil event and publishing their updated soil manifesto (in Italian).

Smart and affordable farming in Spain, Greece and Portugal

To meet our planet’s ever-increasing demand for food, farmers have tended to boost production with the help of fertilisers, pesticides, water and fossil fuels. The environment has suffered, and soil has been no exception as it has been polluted and degraded.

To counter this, the LIFE GAIA Sense project team is developing a smart farming system that aims to reduce the use of natural resources in farming, while maintaining and even increasing crop yields. To this end, the team is installing 18 cutting edge systems on farms in Greece, Portugal and Spain that grow crops like tomatoes, kiwi fruit and peaches.

It is expected that the technology will help improve soil, water and air quality. It will also cut water and pesticide use, reduce emissions, and boost farmers’ incomes. Once on the market, the innovation will be inexpensive to buy meaning lots of farmers will be able to use it.

Natural pesticides to boost biodiversity

Pesticides on crops can enter the soil, which negatively impacts pollination, soil formation, and drinking water quality.

In Spain, the team behind WASTE4GREEN is testing how well two natural pesticides made from agro-industrial waste can protect stone fruit crops like plums and apricots. Expected results include around 56% less chemical pesticide content in the soil. The team also wants to eventually sell the two formulations on the market.

Treating soil better for more returns

High-quality soil can cope better with climate change impacts like flooding and erosion. The team behind LIFE HelpSoil tested new ways of improving soil quality on 20 farms in the Po Plain, and in the Alpine and Apennine foothills in northern Italy. These soil conservation methods included minimal soil disturbance, covering the soil surface with crop residues and growing a more diverse range of crops. Results included an improved soil structure, reducing the chances of erosion from extreme weather events. More efficient irrigation of water, fertiliser and pesticides was also observed.

A new life for toxic soil

Around 16% of the EU’s land is suffering from degradation. The LIFE ReSoil team in Slovenia developed a cutting edge technology to clean heavily contaminated soil. The innovation removes most of the toxic elements and preserves the soil as a natural resource. The environmental problem is therefore eradicated and no longer a burden for future generations. The coordinator is presently working on bringing the technology to the market.

Viva grass, viva the Baltics!

Grasslands provide a range of ecosystem services, which are essential for maintaining biodiversity and our health. In the Baltic States, grasslands are under threat due to urbanisation, farming and land abandonment in remote areas. The result is a loss of both soil quality and biodiversity.

The LIFE Viva Grass project team sought to halt the loss of these grasslands and to improve their management by developing an Integrating Planning Tool. The online tool links grassland data, such as land quality, and habitat types with expert guidance on ecosystem services. The tool allows users to assess grassland ecosystem services in certain areas and to develop ecosystem-based grassland management and planning scenarios. The project saw grasslands being mapped and assessed in nine test areas in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. (Source EC)

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