Many ecosystem services (i.e. the benefits people obtain from resources and processes that are provided by natural ecosystems) are supplied by soils: For instance production of food, feed, fibre, clean water and control of greenhouse gases and crop pests. Despite their important role, ecosystem services’ true worth are not appreciated so that they are not yet taken into account by many economic markets, government policies or land management practices. As a result, current land use and agricultural practices are often damaging ecosystems’ components and the services they provide are declining. However, a growing recognition of the importance for identifying and incorporating nature’s services into policymaking has started to gain credence within European policies. In 2006, the European Commission put forward a thematic strategy for soil conservation and a proposal for a Soil Framework Directive. Still, there are varying approaches to soil conservation across the EU as the directive has not yet been adopted.
To investigate threats towards soil biodiversity and related ecosystem services, including economic aspects, the European Commission funded SOILSERVICE through the seventh framework programme (FP7), a grant funding mechanism. The project ended in 2012 and has resulted in useful tool boxes and conclusions in order to support the strategic planning process of European policy- and decision makers. The project showed that land use changes affect soil biodiversity in a similar manner all over Europe despite different compositions in soil and microbiology. A set of toolboxes were developed during the project and represent valuable instruments for policy development and assessment. A first toolbox quantifies ecosystem services and assesses how these are related to soil biodiversity. Another determines the ecological-economic values of soil ecosystem services. These tools will be soon available and usable once they are published in peer review scientific articles. The technology readiness level of these damage-reducing techniques is estimated to be 9 on the TRL scale.
To obtain relevant data on ecosystem services and make information accessible and available, the effects of different land use intensities on soil biodiversity and nutrient dynamics were studied in a number of agricultural field studies. Farms in different climates and conditions were selected for collecting data in the UK, Sweden, Czech Republic and Greece. The intensity in agricultural activity varied between the tested areas, from pastures to intensive cropping.
An extensive data analysing process was thereafter undertaken to establish the results and develop the models for the toolboxes, including a thorough investigation of a number of vital aspects related to soil ecosystem services. The adverse effects on soil biodiversity from due to intensive farming practices, which in turn affect the soil’s regulation of nutrients, atmospheric gases and control of pests and invasive species, were clearly established. In combination with scenarios of future land-use, these activities resulted in some hands-on suggestions on how soils can be better managed to mitigate climate change and reduce fertiliser and chemical inputs without affecting the long-term incomes of European farmers.