by Jude Gonzalez
Sharing best practice farming techniques with farmers from different
cultures and traditions could help increase the quality of our soils
- a vital step in ensuring that we can grow enough food for people
in the coming decades.
Wageningen University in the
Netherlands, scientists are coding an app that will allow farmers in
countries as far away as China to compare soil quality with their
With a flick of the finger, farmers will be able to post soil test
results to the cloud and share details on how they work their
The platform will allow
food producers in similar climates abroad to assess the long-term
impact of these farming techniques and the merits of applying them
to their own crops.
Dr Luuk Fleskens, who is developing the app through the
iSQAPER project, says that farmers
from different cultures have a lot to learn from each other.
'The wheat growing
area in north-eastern China is comparable to the conditions in
eastern Poland,' said Dr Fleskens. 'Same crop and same
conditions but different fertilization strategies.'
Since the introduction of
Nitrates Directive in 1991, the EU
has limited the use of chemical fertilizers. In contrast, China's
wheat fields rely on chemical inputs, which gradually erode the
quality of their soil.
By offering a window into what has worked well in Europe, iSQAPER
can help wean Chinese farmers off unnecessary growth additives.
Likewise, the app allows
vast testing facilities in China to share their results with EU
researchers on emerging environmentally-friendly farming techniques.
Cross-checking results has long presented a challenge in agronomy.
Harvests vary each year
depending on uncontrollable variables such as pest invasions and the
weather. At present, agricultural records tend to be local and
Few farmers test their
own soil and each country adopts its own metrics to evaluate field
outputs and soil quality.
Tools like iSQAPER are
bringing big data within reach of agronomists for the first time.
'We now have a simple
technology to communicate between researchers and farmers
directly,' said Dr Fleskens. 'We are collecting a truly global
dataset on soil quality.'
The iSQAPER consortium
will test its app across 14 sites in the EU and China before
releasing a full beta version this summer.
If the right testing
standards and data ownership measures can be introduced, these
measurements could turn into the first truly representative data
sample on global soil.
An archive on this scale
would prove useful to check the effectiveness and sustainability of
different farming techniques.
'We need to produce
more food per acre if we want to nourish the world's growing
Professor Oene Oenema
Wageningen Environmental Research
It's a perspective that
is urgently needed.
According to Professor
Oene Oenema at Wageningen Environmental Research, an increasing
use of machinery, chemical fertilizers and pesticides in modern-day
farming could be masking a worrying decline in soil quality.
'There is a matter of
concern if you look at this from a global scale,' said Prof.
Oenema. 'We need to produce more food per acre if we want to
nourish the world's growing population.'
In China and other major
food markets, the solution has long been to increase the dose of
chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
This ticking time-bomb
places future agricultural yields at risk.
As part of a
project called SoilCare, funded by
the EU, Prof. Oenema is helping identify and evaluate promising
soil-improving cropping systems from 16 test sites across Europe.
These involve, for
SoilCare coordinator Dr Rudi Hessel, also at Wageningen
Environmental Research, says that controlled experiments are
exposing established farming techniques to the scrutiny of science,
sometimes running against millennia of malpractice.
'In some parts of
Europe, farmers consider that fields do not look tidy if there
are weeds or plants beneath the crops,' said Dr Hessel.
'That's a cultural
thing, but from a scientific perspective it is good
to have other plants there.'
The declining quality of our soils, known as soil degradation, could
have dramatic impacts on our food system.
The Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates
95% of our food is directly or indirectly
produced on soils and the vast majority of food-producing
plants need healthy soil to grow.
It also impacts climate and health.
Soils are one of the
largest carbon storage areas on Earth, holding about twice as much
organic carbon as above-ground vegetation, except in tropical
Poor soil quality could
not only reduce this function but also lead to a greater incidence
of diseases such as
tetanus or parasites such as