Soil organic carbon determines the amount of soil life, and consequently soil fertility and farming yields. Soil biodiversity is not only essential to farming, but also generates a range of critical ecosystem services. Additionally, there is a positive relationship between soil biodiversity and control of greenhouse gases, retention of nutrients and biotic resistance to pests. Conserving and increasing soil organic matter is therefore beneficial for soil biodiversity and to the continual generation of ecosystem services.
In the EU, arable farming is characterized by short rotations of annual crops, high rates of fertilizer and chemical application, and absence of organic amendments. These practices result in degradation of soil biodiversity and declining soil carbon. To farmers, the benefits of conserving soil biodiversity occur in the future, which make the adoption of conservation measures seem costly in the short term. Further, services such as carbon storage are a public good which might make it unlikely that farmers will consider this value in their soil management decisions. As a result, the team in the project SoilService saw clear reasons for policy intervention in the management of European soils. The project has quantified the negative impacts of intensive arable cropping systems on soil fertility due to loss of soil organic matter and soil biodiversity, and has formulated the main conclusions in some hands-on suggestions to support policy-makers in their
strategic planning of soil-related policies.
With scenarios of future land use, the aforementioned project has predicted how soils can be better managed to improve the long-term incomes of European farmers, mitigate climate change and reduce nutrient and chemical inputs. This can be achieved by conserving soil biodiversity, the natural capital that generates ecosystem services. Ecosystem services link farmers’ economic decision making with production, land use (food vs. biofuel), soil biodiversity and sustainability.
According to the project suggestions, two particular complications need to be considered in the formulation of policies: firstly, soils constitute natural capital that can only be built up over time. Hence policies must have a long-term perspective similar to that of investing in infrastructure. Secondly, soils generate multiple services. Hence policies should target variables that are correlated with services to the farmer as well public goods. A single policy instrument for multiple soil ecosystem services could be based on soil carbon content and long term commitment. An alternative approach would be to base the policy on land use.
SoilService project: Policy Brief “Soil as a natural capital; agricultural production, soil fertility and farmers economy”.