Database full of know-how on healthy soil

Circular agriculture

Best4Soil does not look at the soil from just one perspective. Video: Pixabay / Miguel Á. Padriñán

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Sustainable food production starts with healthy soil. That is soil teeming with life, from earthworms and other nematodes to bacteria and fungi. But the soil in many places in Europe is far from healthy. Researchers at Wageningen University & Research and their European colleagues are now combining their expertise on how to improve soil life and making that expertise available to growers and consultants.

Soil life that is in equilibrium helps make plants more resilient to diseases and therefore reduces the need for pesticides. But soil ecosystems have suffered a lot since the Second World War from developments such as the excessive use of pesticides, disproportionate use of fertilisers and poorly conceived cropping plans. These problems apply across Europe. The European Innovation Platform AGRI, a European Commission platform, has now decided that these soil problems should be assessed and solutions offered. The focus group included farmers, researchers and consultants. Some of them were very enthusiastic about Aaltjesschema, a Dutch website with information about how to manage nematodes; tiny eelworms that live in the soil in huge numbers. In general, nematodes serve a useful purpose in farming because they help combat pests. However, some nematodes are harmful to crops so they do need to be tackled. It was decided to propose a European project – Best4Soil – in which all the know-how needed to make and keep the soil healthy would be collected and made available in a form that growers and their consultants can use.

We have catalogued the effect of all crops on nematodes and fungi

Nematodes are microscopically small worms that can be utilised for pest control. Photo: Shutterstock

Wageningen Research Field Crops was assigned the scientific lead for the project because of the eelworm website, explains Leendert Molendijk, a researcher at Wageningen University & Research. “The Netherlands is a pioneer because we started early in banning various pesticides.” Delphy (a company that provides growers around the world with expertise) was also brought in to make sure the information would be accessible.

Soil diseases

The Netherlands is a river delta with soil types that are much less common in the rest of Europe. Growing conditions also vary from country to country. Even so, the soil diseases that Dutch growers have to deal with in clay and sandy soils are broadly speaking the same diseases that are found in the rest of Europe. That means the Dutch can export much of their know-how, explains Molendijk. In addition to what has been published in the scientific literature, the researchers have also added expertise that the various European experimental stations have but that has not been published. “That practical knowledge is also very valuable but it was not accessible until now. We have also verified all that knowledge so that we can be sure we are giving farmers recommendations that have a solid foundation.”

Crotalaria plants are used as green manure and fodder. They are also a pleasure to the eye. Photo: Shutterstock

Transparent polyethylene foil on the ground for the solarisation of the soil to reduce weeds, insects and bacteria in an environmentally friendly manner. Photo: Shutterstock

The collaboration resulted in a great deal of valuable knowledge from all the participating European countries, says Molendijk. “We have a lot of detailed knowledge about eelworms in the Netherlands whereas they are barely known in Hungary or Romania. People don’t realise they exist. Farmers in those countries can’t afford chemical pesticides and have found other solutions for soil improvement, which other countries can also learn from. Many worthwhile studies have been performed in Denmark and Sweden but they had never been published, and now they are available. We got information from Poland about various nematode species that are important in cereal cultivation but that were missing from the Best4Soil database. In this way, the Best4Soil database serves as the point where all the information on nematodes and soil fungi that is available in Europe comes together. Each country had its own strong points. I believe we now have everything that has ever been investigated in Europe concerning soil pathogens and nematodes in our possession.”

Best4Soil is an international network that aims to stimulate the four best practices for soil health in Europe. This video explains what Best4Soil does.

The collaboration has resulted in a ‘community of practice’ network that brings growers, consultants, extension workers and researchers in contact with one another, plus a website with relevant information, a database and meetings and events in 20 European countries where people can discuss soil health.

Network of practitioners

Farmers can consult the database – available in 22 European languages – and specify what crops they want to grow. It then produces a crop plan that will help prevent soil diseases, with background information in English. “In Best4Soil, we have catalogued the effect of all crops on nematodes and fungi in the soil. Some crops promote nematode numbers while other crops inhibit them. Farmers can use this information when deciding on crop rotation – a smart cropping plan.” The website also gives the top four general measures that all farmers can take to improve soil health – hence the name Best4Soil. The measures concern the use of compost and organic materials, the use of green manure, anaerobic soil disinfestation and solarisation. In anaerobic soil disinfestation – a good alternative to the use of chemical agents – fermentation is induced in organic material in the soil by covering the soil with a plastic sheet. Substances are then produced that are comparable to the alcohol and vinegar in domestic fermentation processes and that kill off many pathogens. The soil is also covered with a sheet in solarisation. The soil then becomes so hot in the sunlight that the pathogens in the soil all die off. This form of soil improvement is mainly used in more southerly countries.

We need to view the soil as a whole so that consultants and growers see the bigger picture

Compost allows farmers to improve soil health. Photo: Shutterstock

The nice thing about Best4Soil, says Molendijk, is that it does not look at the soil from just one perspective. “Usually, one of three perspectives is adopted: fertilisation, structure/water or soil biology. We have combined these aspects in Best4Soil. We need to view the soil as a whole so that consultants and growers see the bigger picture. Now farmers often adopt an ad hoc approach: there’s damage so what pesticide should I put in the soil? You may find a solution for that problem but there is a big chance that it will only lead to a new problem.” Best4Soil came online in February 2022 and farmers in more and more countries have discovered the programme and are using it. Molendijk has had a lot of enthusiastic responses.

The soil as a whole

The project has also provided valuable new information for Dutch farmers, who were already familiar with the Dutch eelworm website. “We are increasingly seeing tagetes (African marigolds) in fields as part of the crop rotation plan. That is thanks to our research. Tagetes can be used to keep certain nematodes under control. There are now also schemes that take soil fungi into account.” Is a project like Best4Soil ever finished? Knowledge about soil health continues to be accumulated and it is important to maintain that knowledge and store it in the database. Molendijk: “It would be good if the government invested money in this. In Germany, the government has set up a central site online with validated tools, which includes Best4Soil. Something like this should also be set up for the Netherlands and at the European level. I would also like to see new research to identify the gaps in Best4Soil. The strength of Wageningen is that we only deem research to be finished once it is being applied in practice.”

European research context

Best4Soil addresses the following European policy challenges:

  • Exchanging know-how on sustainable soil management
  • The restoration of degraded soils
  • The protection of the soil and the sustainable use of land

Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Plant Research Countries involved in Europe: Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland and United Kingdom

Duration: 2018 – 2022

Share this article