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Exploiting the multifunctional potential of belowground biodiversity in horticultural farming

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EXCALIBUR (Exploiting the multifunctional potential of belowground biodiversity in horticultural farming)

Reporting period: 2019-06-01 to 2020-11-30

Soil biodiversity includes over a quarter of all living species on earth and plays a major role in soil health. However, our knowledge on the links between the native soil biodiversity and agriculture is still limited, thus hampering the integration of such biodiversity into farming practices. Excalibur has the ambition of marking the road to a biodiversity-driven change in the soil management for enhancing the efficacy of biocontrol and biofertilization practices in horticultural farming. This goal is expected to be achieved by an integrated approach of research, development of novel bioproducts and field implementation. More specifically, new multifunctional soil microbial inoculants and bio-effectors (compounds or by-products which directly or indirectly enhance plant performance) will be tested on three model crops (tomato, apple, strawberry) under conventional and organic management across Europe. The main objectives of the project are:
• Generate new knowledge on soil biodiversity and plant-soil-microbe interactions
• Optimize the formulation and the application methods of novel microbial-based products
• Evaluate the efficacy and the economic feasibility of the new strategy under open-field conditions
• Evaluate of the effects of the new strategy on soil quality and ecosystem functions under field conditions
• Provide tools (model and DSS) to help practical application of a comprehensive biodiversity-driven strategy for soil management
• Develop adequate tools (diagnostic kits) to detect and monitor the persistence and the fate of the microbial inoculants in the field
• Disseminate the results to relevant stakeholders and encourage the adoption of best practices
During the first 18 months of EXCALIBUR we have performed most all the activities planned for this period, according to the Annex 1 of the Grant Agreement. However, some of the activities related to lab and field work foreseen in WP1 and WP2 were significantly delayed of up to 6-12 months due to COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, we asked for an extension of 6 months of the initial project duration.
Most of the activity in WP1 performed so far regarded the selection of field trials and treatments whereas the assessment of the initial native soil biodiversity has been postponed to spring 2021 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. A total of 31 field trials with three crops (apple, strawberry and tomato) were defined in seven EU countries. Common analytical and sampling methods were also defined. Soils of each trial were characterized for their main physico-chemical properties and a pedological survey was performed at four field trials (in PL, UK, D and IT). Moreover, a project database that will host all the project data related to soil features and biodiversity has been released. In WP2 several new microbial-based products and formulations have been tested for their efficacy in preliminary lab- and/or pot-scale experiments. A list of potential microbial PGPR and/or biocontrol strains and bioeffectors was provided, including the relevant information needed for the formulation of the bioproducts. The activities of WP3 started at M18 and aim to assess the benefits of the new proposed strategy for management of microbial-based plant nutrition and protection under real field conditions, according to the outcomes of WP1, WP2 and WP4. All the field trials are planned to start during 2021. WP4 started on M12 and will assess the impacts of the bioproducts on soil biodiversity and soil quality since spring 2021. In this first period it established the strategy to generate best quality data during the experiments and utilize it for the analysis ahead to receive the best possible outcomes and achieve set goals, thus delivering the “Protocols for soil quality assessment”. WP5 aims at deciphering mechanisms underlying the effects of bio-inocula on plant responses to biotic and abiotic stress observed in the other WP. Some preliminary work already started. For example, an innovative approach to assess the effects of bioinocula on microbially produced volatiles (mVOCs) and their bioactivity was validated in apple. Moreover, a tool for testing the abundance and fate of bioinocula in soil was developed and validated in 3 different soils. After creating all elements of the Excalibur visual identity (project logo, website, templates, social media accounts, etc.), WP6 focused on promoting Excalibur and project-related activities to the broader public. The first and second issues of the project Newsletter and Press Release were published. Moreover, the first project video has been released (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-tnDsmiYZc&t=4s) presenting Excalibur’s partners, general objectives and expected results.
The core concept of Excalibur derives from the understanding of the complexity of the soil biodiversity and plant-soil-microbe interactions, moving beyond the simplified view of individual plant–microbe or soil-plant interactions and consider the plant, the soil, and the soil organisms as a unique “meta-organism” able to influence plant health and productivity. Therefore, the new knowledge produced by Excalibur by using cutting edge methods is expected to uncover soil biodiversity multiscale dynamics in relation to agronomical practices, particularly related to the use of microbial inoculants for plant nutrition and protection practices, under contrasting biotic/abiotic stress conditions and management systems.
Expected results:
• Increased knowledge on soil biodiversity dynamics, plant-soil-microbe interactions and on the relationships between soil native biodiversity, soil health, bioproducts and control of biotic and abiotic stress
• Definition of strategies for the improvement of plant protection and nutrition by enhancing soil biodiversity management
• Development and improved formulation of new multifunctional microbial inoculants
• Practical guidelines for farmers and technical advisors on how to apply microbial-based products
• Development of diagnostic tools for the detection and monitoring of microbial inoculants in the soil
• Delivery of new methods and tools to easily address soil microbial diversity
• Development and validation of a predictive model and of a decision support system (DSS) for biodiversity management
• Demonstration of the efficacy and economical suitability of the new strategy under field scale trials.
• Insight in the incentives from the value chain and policy makers to enhance more sustainable biodiversity driven soil management
Main potential impacts:
• Enhancement of soil ecosystem services and sustainability in horticulture
• Reduction of external inputs in plant management (10-30%, depending on crops, conditions, etc.)
• Contribution to enhance innovation capacity, create new market opportunities, strengthen competitiveness and growth of companies
• New solutions and tools to embed soil biodiversity benefits into policy measures and support derivative legal provisions (es. EU Fertilizer Regulation, EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030, bioproduct registration, etc.)
• Development of more efficient microbial-based products and optimization of their application
• Strategies and tools for a biodiversity-based soil management
• Foster the synergies between agricultural production, biodiversity and the delivery of soil ecosystem services
• Contribution to address other issues related to climate change or the environment, or bring other benefits for society
This scheme represents the overall concept of the project