2019 03 19

Soil Saving Plan Is in the Hands of Researchers!

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Soil is delicate and easily vulnerable living skin of the Earth and one of its most precious resources. Unfortunately, this vital resource is being quickly depleted – a half of the planet’s soil was lost over the last 150 years. The biggest challenge of today’s agricultural science is to provide knowledge allowing to take measures to restore and preserve the vitality of the soil.

“Soil degradation and reduction of its fertility is a severe problem globally. Data of United Nations (UN) shows that about a third of the planet’s soil is exhausted. Because of intensive farming, we lose approximately 24 billion of tonnes of fertile soil globally each year. It is estimated that the resulting global fertility losses exceed USD 40 billion yearly. Specialists from all over the world warn us: if we allow such a rapid degradation of soil to continue, we can only enjoy fruits of agriculture for the next 60 years. The UN has set a goal to stop global soil degradation till 2030. Lithuanian researchers also urge to solve the soil degradation problem proactively and suggest measures how this can be done,” says Kęstutis Šetkus, Director of Agency for Science, Innovation and Technology (MITA).

Lithuanian Soil Is Losing Its Fertility

The problem of soil degradation is very sore in Lithuania as well. Doc. Dr. Vytautas Liakas – mentor of Communication and Technology Transfer Centre of the Vytautas Magnus University Agriculture Academy (VMU AA), docent of the Faculty of Agronomy and head of the New Technology Centre of the Park of Agricultural Science and Technologies – claims that the rapid deterioration of soil in our country is caused not only by wind- and rain-induced soil erosion, but also by irresponsible farming, i.e. over-intensive agriculture, unjustified use of agricultural machines, and heavy fertilization. “From the start of their farming activities in 1991, some Lithuanian farmers have lost 50-60 % of soil humus. This is a huge loss, nearly equivalent to soil destruction. People usually do not grasp the damage, but specialists record yearly losses of the fertile humus layer. Soil turns grey, instead of being black.

Farmers see that input of fertilizers and crop protection products increases, but yields do not. Fertilizer consumption in Lithuania increased by 30 % on average from 1998, but it has not brought any significant growth of fertility. The reason is the soil deterioration,” claims Doc. Dr. V. Liakas. He tells that the worst-case scenario, if no measures for soil improvement are taken, is desertification. “Soil used to be sand long ago, but over millions of years the decaying remnants of plants and animals have created its organic layer, the humus. Due to permanent depletion, it can turn into sand again in future. The minimum amount of soil humus needed for plants is 2 %. But currently soil contains just 1,2-1.5 % of humus in many regions of Lithuania. On the other hand, in some locations, such as Joniškis and Vilkaviškis regions, soil is very fertile and may contain more than 3 % of humus”, tells V. Liakas.

Researchers Suggest Solutions for Sustainable Agriculture

Doc. Dr. V. Liakas believes that we have already reached the critical state, when, willingly or not, we must take care of the soil. Situation is not yet hopeless, since there are ways to preserve the soil. Lithuanian researchers are working actively in this area. Vytautas Magnus University Agriculture Academy, Vilnius University, Lithuanian Research Centre for Agriculture and Forestry and other research institutions, in active cooperation with agricultural businesses, carry out research of crop and soil condition, perform innovative field tests and provide research-based methods for soil improvement.

Liakas has summarised the most important recommendations of Lithuanian researchers for preservation of soil in the country.

  • Abandonment of Unjustified Cultivation

In Lithuania, only the upper soil layer of 15-20 cm is fertile. But modern agricultural machines plough deeper and raise the non-fertile layer. Moreover, inappropriate ploughing promotes spread of weeds, and heavy machines running in fields compact the ground. Lithuanian farmers can still become confused when encouraged to abandon intensive farming and to avoid ploughing, but scientists claim that unjustified land cultivation contributes strongly to soil devastation. “Farmers do not yet understand that land cultivation should be reduced. Instead they are eager to increase farming intensity and do it irrationally. It is recommended to simplify land cultivation and to switch to direct sowing, when land is not ploughed but immediately sown after harvesting. This is one of the most popular solutions to protect soil against devastation,” explains V. Liakas.

  • Crop Rotation

“Farming is business. Cultivation of some crops is profitable, but of others is not. Farmers are inclined to cultivate the profitable ones only, that is wheat, barley or rape. Such crops, however, are the most impoverishing for the soil, and therefore crop rotation is necessary. Lithuanian scientists are researching postharvest crops trying to understand their root system, what microorganisms thrive at their presence, how the crops cope with pathogens in the soil and how do they improve it,” tells V. Liakas. Intermediate crops not only enrich the soil with valuable substances and improve the soil structure, but also reduce numbers of weeds, stop spread of some diseases and pests, and preserve moisture. After harvesting, it is recommended to sow the postharvest soil-improving crops (oil radish, white mustard, rape, phacelia, buckwheat, lupin, pea and other rapidly growing crops) or their mixtures. Farmers improving soil with postharvest crops may receive EU greening payments.

  • Use of Biopreparations

According to V. Liakas, the most recent and currently the most relevant direction of research work is soil microbiology. Very important indicator of soil health is its biological activity. A cubic centimetre of fertile soil contains millions of bacteria taking part in soil formation processes and protecting crops from spread of pathogenic agents. To restore a depleted soil, it is recommended to use biopreparations, which increase its microbiological diversity and activate its natural processes. “Biopreparations created and produced in Lithuania can be used to solve all the soil and crop related problems – to strengthen immune system, to increase amounts of bio-nitrogen in soil, to improve uptake of phosphorus, to disintegrate various pollutants, for example, when soil is polluted with oil, heavy metals or salts. There are also biopreparations recommended to fight against crop diseases. In contrast to chemical crop protection products, pathogens do not become resistant to them. And most importantly, biopreparations do not pollute environment and have no negative impact on plants, animals and humans. Biopreparations are not fertilizers. They are soil activators, created with the help of technologies, successfully used by nature for millions of years. Earth contains all the valuable substances it needs, but we have blocked them by abundant and long-term use of fertilizers and pesticides. Biopreparations help the soil to recover and to provide crops with necessary nutrients,” says V. Liakas.

Specialists from MITA say that as much as approx. 75 % of Lithuanian soil are on the edge of degradation, mostly because of intensive and chemically intensive agriculture. Such practices reduce amounts of organic substances in soil, increase pollution with heavy metals and create disbalances among chemical elements. Representatives of agrobusiness and farmers are encouraged to show active interest in scientific research in agriculture, to heed to expert recommendations and to switch towards conservation tillage and sustainable agriculture. Partnership between business and science is beneficial to both sides, and also to nature!

Open research and development network ‘Open R&D Lithuania’, supervised by the MITA, has gathered together state universities, research institutes, science and technology parks and open access centres all over the country to help Lithuanian researchers developing state-of-the-art technologies to meet with domestic and foreign businesses and to promote their cooperation. The largest network of innovation infrastructure, services and competences in the Baltics provides over 2.5 thousand services in the areas of engineering and IT, biomedicine and biotechnologies, materials science, physical and chemical technology, natural resources and agriculture.

To facilitate successful cooperation between business and science, the MITA has founded Contact Centre of the ‘Open R&D Lithuania’ network. It helps business to find suitable competences in research institutions, to find out where necessary services can be ordered and to arrange individual meetings.

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