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Interactive Soil Quality Assessment in Europe and China for Agricultural Productivity and Environmental Resilience

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - iSQAPER (Interactive Soil Quality Assessment in Europe and China for Agricultural Productivity and Environmental Resilience)

Reporting period: 2018-05-01 to 2019-04-30

Given the importance of soils for crop and livestock production as well as for providing wider ecosystem services, maintaining the land in good condition is of vital importance. To manage the use of agricultural soils well, decision-makers need science-based, easy to apply and cost-effective tools to assess soil quality and function, accompanied by recommendations relevant to the land user at a given moment and location. Furthermore, policy decisions need to consider the management of agricultural soils in relation with trade-offs with other economic sectors, and ecosystem service impacts and contributions.

iSQAPER aims to:
1) Integrate existing soil quality related information with characterisations of crop and livestock farming systems in various pedo-climatic zones across Europe and China;
2) Synthesize the evidence for agricultural management effects provided by long-term field trials across Europe and China on soil physical, chemical and biological properties, including interactions, and related ecosystem services such as agricultural productivity and yield stability;
3) Derive and identify innovative soil quality indicators that can be integrated into an easy-to-use interactive soil quality assessment tool, accounting for the effects of agricultural land management practices and related effects upon ecosystem services;
4) Develop, with input from a variety of stakeholders, a multilingual Soil Quality Application (SQAPP) for in-field soil quality assessment and monitoring as an example of social innovation that allows interaction between multilevel actors;
5) Test, refine, and roll out SQAPP across Europe and China as a new standard for holistic assessment of agricultural soil quality;
6) Use a trans-disciplinary, multi-actor approach to validate and support SQAPP and to become truly relevant for agricultural practice under a wide range of circumstances;
7) Develop scenarios of how widespread application of improved agricultural management practices can contribute to a lower soil environmental footprint at a continental scale (Europe and China), while maintaining or increasing crop productivity and yield stability;
8) Carry out an integrated assessment of existing soil and agriculture related EU and national (including China) policies and derive recommendations for improvement, i.e. through the post-2020 CAP; and
9) Disseminate project results using a variety of formats and media to inform and engage targeted stakeholders, ranging from land users to high-level policy makers and the general public.
Occurrence of farming systems in different pedo-climatic conditions was assessed in both Europe and China. The relative importance of farming systems within pedo-climatic zones was also mapped. A dynamic comparison of cropping patterns between 2005 and 2010 was made.

Existing long term experiments (LTE) available to iSQAPER in Europe and China were analysed. The effects of four management practices on five soil quality indicators was evaluated. The lack of a coherent dataset from all LTEs was identified as an important knowledge gap and addressed in a sampling campaign. Multi-variate analysis of the effect of tillage and organic ammendments was made based on LTE data.

A critical review of soil quality concepts was made. The review revealed how soil quality assessment has changed through time in terms of objectives, tools and methods, and overall approach. Crucial steps in scientifically sound soil quality assessment to support management and policy decisions that account for the multi-functionality of soil are outlined. Innovative soil quality indicators were tested and recommendations made.

A beta version of an interactive Soil Quality App (SQAPP) has been released. The app focuses on all global and continental (Europe, China) spatial soil data and aims to inform land users on the relative soil quality of their land, and provide them with recommendations for improving the soil. Multi-actor discussions and feedback are used to improve SQAPP.

For all 14 Case Study Sites a stakeholder inventory was conducted using a snowball sampling approach. In total 234 stakeholders were identified. A total of 148 plots/farms were identified covering 8 Climatic regions and the most common soil types within each region. 14 innovative agricultural management practices (AMPs) were identified in a transdisciplinary approach. The effects of AMPs on soil quality are being inventoried in 24 test sites.

Work on policy analysis has started with scoping meetings to define a shortlist of concepts and priorities upon which to focus. A systematic review of policies was made at EU level and national level in Europe and China that impact on the protection of soils on agricultural land. Training sessions were organised for project partners and three policy briefs were produced.

A Plan for the Exploitation and Dissemination of Results was prepared and updated. The iSQAPERiS website (www.iSQAPER-is.eu) has been set up and is gradually updated to communicate research results. Some 25 infographics and 24 short videos covering various aspects of the project were made.
While there is consensus that a set of chemical, biological and physical indicators is needed in combination to characterise soil quality, there is not yet a consensus on the best combination of properties to effectively assess how soil quality interacts with land use, soil type and climatic conditions to influence the biomass production (agronomic) function of soils. Furthermore, there is a lack of clarity about the effects agricultural management practices have on changing physical and chemical soil properties and also on the composition of the soil biological community. iSQAPER addresses these issues through analysis of ongoing long-term field trials supplemented by targeted lab and field experiments.

There is also a research gap in easy-to-apply tools to assess soil quality at the plot, field, farm and regional level, which can be used by practitioners in the agricultural sector. The Soil Quality app (SQAPP) will advance the current state of the art by developing social soil quality mapping as a new two-way methodology of data collection and advice rendering, allowing tool recommendations to improve over time.

iSQAPER expects the following five impacts:
1. Exploring, in more detail than currently available, the interactions between land management practices and changes in soil properties and function.
2. Development of a widely accessible and cost effective tool to assess and monitor the quality of agricultural soils based on integrating state-of-the-art soil physical, chemical and biological knowledge with site specific data, indicators, and modelling approaches.
3. Maintain and preferably increase crop productivity and yield stability through introduction and adoption of agricultural land management practices which ensure a certain level of soil quality.
4. Quantified relationship between soil quality, crop productivity and yield stability, and ecosystem services (among others) for agricultural activities deployed by land users in different farming systems across major pedo-climatic zones of Europe and China.
5. Offer insights into how best to use the opportunity of the on-going reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to improve the sector’s resource efficiency and environmental performance and reduce its impact on soil, water, air, biodiversity and landscape.
Figure 1. Opening screens of the SQAPP beta version