Belgium: Soil passport as new tool to more sustainable management of agricultural parcels

ILVO is going to set up a sort of 'medical record' for its land parcels. All soil data - crop rotation, soil working and treatment, analyzes, yields and environmental conditions - are brought together in it. Such an integrated dataset enables a richer data mining, which may provide new insights about sustainable and climate-friendly soil management.

200 hectares
The Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food ILVO has around 200 hectares of test fields (part of which are biological) for its agricultural research projects and for the normal exploitation of its test farm. Filip De Brouwer (ILVO): 'Just like every farmer, ILVO produces every year a cultivation plan on the basis of the needs and taking into account the crops that were cultivated here in the past. And every year lots of data are collected and updated by the individual researchers. Certainly with the use of precision agriculture, the flow of data (from the used tractors, machines, drones, soil scans, ...) is growing exponentially.'

As long as the information is spread, the exact influence of each factor or action from the past on the current field performance cannot be studied in full. With the soil passport ILVO therefore wants to get a broader (long-term) view of the natural processes on its test fields.

Bart Vandecasteele (ILVO): 'We have known for quite some time that the history of soil management can have a strong impact on the soil condition of today. What you measure at one moment in one year in terms of chemical soil composition and nutrient balance is often not enough to explain why the soil gives this or that particular yield and disease or stress sensitivity to the crops. The snapshot is certainly not enough to find the cause and remediation of a spatial variability.'

Gradually to automation
The first step is a digital module in which soil analyzes, soil scans, history of parcels and crops are stored. ILVO immediately will use a multidisciplinary team: soil specialists, data managers, image and data analysts, GIS experts, crop and climate specialists.

Greet Ruysschaert (ILVO): 'It is an interesting scientific exercise. How do you structure such an extensive data platform? Which data proves to be useful and which is not? On what basis do we make decisions for the actual soil management? How do we provide access to the different users? '

Jurgen Vangeyte (ILVO): 'At the same time this is an opportunity to build bridges to other data hubs such as for example the Geoloket of the Flemish Agriculture Department, SNapp of the VLM, satellite images or the Farm Management Systems (FMS). '

ILVO reaches out to administrations and organizations to join in thinking about the concept of the soil passport and the practical details. The ILVO grounds can in that additional way become a test site for the Flemish agricultural sector.

Added value? Economical, ecological, climate improvement, useful for sector & policy ...
It has been an ILVO credo for several years: a good crop yield starts with a healthy soil. The realization of that statement is becoming more urgent, because one demands from the 21st century farmer that he, economically and socially sustainable, and with less input, still achieves preferably higher and more qualitative yields. By creating the soil passport ILVO wants to show as a pioneer what you can achieve with a smarter, knowledge-based soil management.

Jeroen De Waegemaeker (ILVO): 'We expect a climate and ecological added value. Think of carbon storage (mitigation) and water buffering (adaptation). What exactly worked favorable for the build-up of carbon or for the water buffering capacity? Such questions require analyzes from an orderly digital logbook per parcel.'
Lastly, according to ILVO, the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 2020 is an opportunity to put soil on the political agenda.

Kristiaan Van Laecke (ILVO): 'The European Commission wants a more ambitious greening policy and from now on grants more freedom to the member states. For us, soil quality can therefore play a role. A healthy soil makes plants more resistant to diseases and pests and provides important ecosystem actions such as better drainage and retention of water, providing a habitat for soil organisms, etc. A farmer who invests in healthy soil creates a win-win for agriculture, society and nature. It is only natural that he gets awarded for that. In that sense, the soil passport could even become a policy tool for more sustainable (European) agriculture.'

Source: ILVO 


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