Earth First

Creating Healthy Soils | Could Apps be The Answer?

Soil is one of our most valuable resources. In agriculture, soil quality does not only determine what grows where, it also has a significant impact on the crop yield. These days, however, many of our soils are in a poor condition and we need to find new solutions to maintain and improve soil quality. Modern technologies, including the soil quality app SQAPP, can support farmers in doing so.

Fertile soils mean profitable yields

Healthy soils are an extremely valuable resource and form the foundation of our lives on Earth. They form the basis of our food and biomass production, filter pollutants, are important for water conservation, store large amounts of CO2, and are home to an estimated 25% of the world's biodiversity.1,2,3 There are more living organisms under the surface of a shoe sole than there are people on earth.4

In agriculture, soil quality has a huge impact on the selection of crops and the harvest. It basically determines what grows where.1,4 Loamy soils are particularly fertile as they consist of approximately equal parts of sand, silt and clay and therefore can store nutrients and water especially well.4

Central European soils are generally very fertile with German soils being among the most productive soils in the world.4 Worldwide, roughly 38% of land area is used for agricultural production and in Germany it is even around 50%.1Due to highly productive soils, yields in Germany can be two times higher than the global average. While the average global yield of cereals is for instance about 4 t/ha, yields in Germany can be up to 8 t/ha.4

However, even though healthy soils are crucial for food security and despite the fact that without soils there would be neither plants, animals, or people, we often pay little attention to them.4

Encroaching deserts are destroying farmland in Zhangye City, China. Residents press sand barriers with wheat straw to hold off desert expansion. (Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Encroaching deserts are destroying farmland in Zhangye City, China. Residents press sand barriers with wheat straw to hold off desert expansion. (Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Agriculture: victim and perpetrator

All over the world, soils are suffering from the impact of intensive agriculture. Climate change, deforestation and industrialisation put additional pressure on soils.5 Constant agricultural cultivation destroys soil structure and kills important bacteria, fungi and other soil organisms. Additionally, heavy rain and wind lead to the erosion of fertile soil layers. Over time, even the most fertile land can become desertified.5

We often think of soils as an endless, or at least renewable, resource. Yet deep fertile soils develop very slowly over a period of several thousands of years. It takes between 100 and 300 years until one centimetre of fertile soil is formed through the interplay of physical, chemical and biological processes. Thus, soils are only renewable to a very limited extent, and the loss of fertile soils cannot be easily reversed.1,5

Despite their huge value, we often pay little attention to our soils and fail to realise that many soils are in a tremendously poor condition. In many parts of the world, soil quality is so bad that it is already affecting food production and hence threatening food security.5 The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that one third of the soils worldwide are already in poor condition. By 2050 soil erosion could cause the loss of up to 10% of crop yields.3

Being perpetrator and victim at the same time, agriculture has a special role to play here. On the one hand, it contributes significantly to the loss of fertile soils and to climate change; on the other hand, it suffers particularly badly from the effects. At the same time, agriculture has a great responsibility and holds enormous potential for improvement, with improved cultivation and land use methods contributing a great deal to the preservation of fertile soils.

Protecting our soils

According to FAO estimates, the world's population will grow up to around 9.7 billion people in the next 30 years.6 To ensure future food security, we need to make sure that our agricultural systems are productive while at the same time being environmentally friendly and maintaining soil quality.

More sustainable land use practices help maintain and improve soil quality. Which measures are most effective however, and where, depends on numerous factors. Local soil properties, climatic conditions, and common agricultural methods are all important aspects. Yet, not all farmers have sufficient access to this information and in some cases may also lack essential knowledge to recognise related risks and opportunities.

Modern technologies including apps can play an important role in spreading knowledge and making it more accessible. Many different apps supporting farmers are already in use with more apps being added constantly. These apps help to improve farm management, increase crop yields and promote overall sustainability. One of these apps supporting farmers in applying more sustainable land use practices is SQAPP.

An app to improve soil health

SQAPP is a soil quality app. It was developed as part of the iSQAPER project, a scientific project aiming at developing and promoting more sustainable farming practices. According to Dr Ir. Luuk Fleskens, associate professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and former scientific director of the iSQAPER project, the app was developed out of the desire to collect data for science, while at the same time creating an added value for all stakeholders.

The app can be used anywhere in the world and provides location-specific information on soil quality and sustainable land use practices.7 Through the app, the data collected within the iSQAPER project is shared with the users. That way knowledge is made available to a wide audience. The app acts as kind of global database with information on local soil properties using data and information from otherwise fragmented global datasets and information sources.7

"For the app, we didn't just look at soil fertility. We also looked at whether soil fertility within a particular climate zone was average, or whether it was rather low or high. That's really new data." - Luuk Fleskens

By putting soil fertility data into perspective, the app enables users to better understand and classify the data. In addition to that, the app suggests concrete measures to maintain and improve soil fertility. Measures concern, for instance, cultivation methods, selection of plants, water management and pest management. In total, the app highlights over 80 measures and approximately 300 examples.

"The nice thing about the app is that it actually gives you instant results for every place you click on [...]." - Luuk Fleskens.

Compared to other apps, SQAPP requires very little input data making it very easy to use.7 The quality of the datasets used by the app varies though. For some regions, very good and accurate datasets are available. In other regions the available data is rather inaccurate and sometimes even wrong. In order to improve the app’s performance and reliability, it is important to continue collecting data and to update the available data sources.

A special feature of the app is the possibility to replace global data with user data. If users have their own more precise data, for instance on local soil and climate properties, they can use this data instead of the global data usually used by the app. This results in more accurate outcomes for the individual using the app. In the long run, this could even lead to a citizen science project in which datasets are continuously improved by user data, says Fleskens.

The future for apps in agriculture

By now, SQAPP is already used all over the world. In the upcoming years, the app will be further improved to address user needs even better. How big the app’s actual impact on agriculture is and to what extent the app really contributes to improved soil fertility and increased sustainability is difficult to assess.

Nevertheless, with the increasing use of smartphones, modern technologies including apps can help to make knowledge more accessible and support sustainable trends in agriculture

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