Sustainability in response to soil degradation

Rafał Igielski, President of the Management Board and co-founder of Somigro, which develops microbiological analyzes for farmers, talks about the role of soil tests, which allows for more and more precise management of fertility.

Is it worth testing the soil?
The short answer to this question is: it’s worth it, because the quality and health of crops begins in the soil. Of course, the reality is a little more complicated. In all crops, regardless of their type, the quality and size of the crop is determined by many factors. Some of them, such as the weather, are beyond our control. Others, such as the type of fertilizers used, the plant varieties cultivated or the practices carried out, can be controlled. Soil is a place where they all meet and can work beneficially. In extreme cases, unfortunately, some of these factors can lead to soil degradation and financial losses. The simplest soil chemical tests include periodic control of pH and macronutrients content. On this basis, liming is recommended or the dosage of mineral fertilizers is calculated. The results of even such simple tests lead to savings. Research on humus is becoming more and more popular, and the fact that its high content in the soil is important is probably already known to every farmer. However, we go one step further and study the activity of biological processes that improve the availability of minerals, regenerate the soil, improve plant immunity and contribute to better yield. Soil-dwelling microorganisms are at the focus of our research, as they carry out most of these processes. 

What does soil testing look like in practice?
When we founded SomiGRO nearly four years ago, we started with a review of publications, our own experience and research, and the fact that we knew about the existence of various research methods allowed us to choose the best ones. We also noticed that most farmers do not have access to them, and when they do, they rarely use them. Interpretation of the results which is difficult to apply in practice also turned out to be a problem. Fortunately, the soil microbiome, despite being very complicated, is also very well described in the literature. We spent the first two years developing our own methods and adapting them to the needs of the farmers we worked with and received invaluable guidance. It turned out that the scientific methods lacked the most important thing – usability. Now we are mainly focusing on this. Among other things, we have developed a test to assess the microbiological ability of the soil to make phosphorus available, in order to indicate recommendations for the use of bacterial preparations that have such bacteria in their formula. We are also looking for new solutions and we are constantly up to date with technological innovations. Thanks to this approach, we have introduced a very modern BIOTREX method to the Polish market, and soon another test will be available in our offer, this time based on DNA analysis of soil-dwelling microorganisms, but we could do a separate interview about it.

What is BIOTREX?
BIOTREX is the name of a method developed in Japan. It is used to assess the biological quality of the soil and it is based on examining the activity and biodiversity of bacteria and fungi, i.e. the so-called soil microbiome. This sounds serious and puzzling, but it is based on very easily understandable principles. The better the microorganisms in the soil feel and work, the healthier and better it will be. In theory, the analysis itself is complex and based on checking the activity of all microorganisms isolated from the soil on a special plate containing 95 different chemical compounds, similar to those we can find in the field. The test itself lasts two days, it is over 18,000 measurements. This amount of measurements delivers extraordinary accuracy of the test and allows us to present the result in the form of a single number. A group of really brilliant scientists from Japan developed this whole process and created a scale of biological soil quality, which we easily use in soil research in Poland and all Europe. We are now testing the impact of products available on the Polish market that regenerate soil and increase its biodiversity. We also tested several dozen different kinds of compost, and it turned out that they differ dramatically in the way they affect the soil. Simply speaking, every compost is different.  We conduct research in orchards, fields and wherever man affects the soil. Thanks to this, we can very precisely assess the state of the microbiome in the soil and its fertility. It is a universal biological indicator. Over the past six months, we have focused on comparing different farming systems and confirmed the beneficial effects of sustainable farming practices on soil and its regeneration.

Can you tell us more about the impact of sustainability on agriculture?
There is a lot of talk in Europe about regenerative agriculture and meanwhile Polish farmers have been using many regenerative practices for a long time. These include, among others, leaving post-harvest residues on field, appropriate crop rotation, shallow plowing. A lot of information on this subject is in the “ASAP” materials and they fall within the scope of sustainable farming practices. The same solutions can be called in many ways – many of the sustainable farming practices can be found in the Ecoschema documentation under the heading “carbon farming”. For the sake of clarity, all practices that favor the restoration of soil structure and biodiversity, the increase of the amount of humus and improvement of soil fertility can be classified to the same group. Many experienced farmers know how to take care of the soil and use the help of nature to save money and enjoy high yields.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of farmers in Europe suffer from problems caused by soil degradation, in particular by soil depletion and loss of biological potential. Microorganisms are the first to react to changes. The declining soil quality also means a decrease in the diversity and activity of microorganisms. The processes occurring in the soil slow down, and the only way to restore the balance in the soil is through regeneration. By performing a microbiological test, we can check whether the field is maintained in good condition or whether it needs corrective actions. Sometimes it is enough to introduce single modifications, such as appropriate crop rotation, leaving straw on field or administering a preparation that improves the decomposition of organic residues. In other cases, it is necessary to reach for whole sets of solutions, choosing appropriate sources of microorganisms and products supporting their activity, such as compost, after-harvest mushroom growing medium, targeted biopreparations and biostimulants. To evaluate the effectiveness of sustainable practices, soil testing, preferably biological, is necessary. It should be strongly emphasized here that it is impossible to improve something that is not measured and not known.

What is the ability of soil to bind greenhouse gases?
Life in the soil is based on carbon. The entire carbon cycle in an ecosystem is very complex. Fortunately, it is easy to observe – for example, in a field where crop residues  left behind are slowly decomposing. The fertile soil is dark because of the carbon content, and more precisely – because of organic matter which can be called living matter. The sand in the desert is largely dead, carbon-free, and bright. So how do you get more carbon into the soil? Using the natural processes that occur in this soil. Plants bind carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, because carbon from this molecule is needed to build tissues, i.e. for growth. Plant residues left in the field contain bound carbon – soil microorganisms are necessary to introduce it into the soil. They carry out the process of transforming carbon compounds called humification, as a result of which humus is formed, organic matter responsible for soil fertility. Let us add that soil microorganisms stimulate plants to grow, thus resulting a higher yield. And higher yields mean that more carbon dioxide has been taken up from the atmosphere and incorporated into plant biomass. Leaving crop residues on the field is already a double profit, because more carbon will be bound in the soil in the form of humus. It is clear that if we act to prevent soil degradation we will also increase its ability to store carbon. Carbon farming is simply an optimization that aims to deliver the most benefit to the farmer and the planet. In our opinion, the development of carbon farming requires support for farmers in understanding and choosing beneficial and effective solutions. Regardless of the future of support systems, for example in the form of carbon credits, carbon farming itself is an opportunity, even if we adopt a different nomenclature – regenerative, sustainable. This is the same thing.  It should result in stopping  soil degradation and thus ensure profitable management and food security for future generations.

What impact will the implementation of the principles of the European Green Deal have on agriculture in the context of the need to reduce the use of plant protection products or fertilizers?
The Common Agricultural Policy forces the introduction of radical changes, but they do not have to be as severe for Polish farmers as it may seem. Firstly, our soils are not as heavily degraded as in many other regions of Europe. It is a mistake to assess soil fertility only on the basis of humus content and to compare these results to farmers from the Netherlands, the USA or Ukraine. Soils with a very low humus content will not necessarily be the most degraded, it is more about the optimal content of organic matter for the given conditions. It is true that soil degradation as a result of intensive agriculture is progressing and is very difficult to reverse. There is no product that can fix years of neglect and harmful practices in two seasons. We can recall here the problem of desertification of some cultivated areas in the region of Greater Poland, which is a really extreme case. Therefore, the effects of drought are more severe, because the decreasing content of humus in the soil reduces the amount of stored water. We also know that the loss of humus is related with the loss of life in the soil. The European Commission has created a legal framework to counteract these changes and introduce a number of improvements that regenerate overused soil. Unfortunately, although legal regulations are radical, tools and solutions that would help implement them are created slowly. Ecoschemes are one such solution, but we know from the farmers themselves that they are far from ideal in their current form. Of course, the rationalization of fertilization and the use of pesticides promotes soil regeneration, but not in every field the same solutions can be proposed. Reducing the dose of fertilizer requires the supply of a natural equivalent of minerals. To maintain the same yields, it will be necessary to ensure that the necessary nutrients are available to the plants. Fortunately, soil microorganisms are very good at this. This really means that conventional agriculture will have to give way to sustainable agriculture to a large extent.

Next year, we will start work on developing a fertilization optimization model based on the BIOTREX microbiological activity tests. Until the end of February 2023, we are recruiting people willing to participate in the farming program. We assume that in some cases it will be possible to reduce fertilization by up to 20% without reducing the crop. The greater the activity and biodiversity in the soil, the higher the efficiency and stability of the ecosystem. And so we return to the European Green Deal, the principles of which support the restoration of life in the soil. As you can see, the next decade is the decade of agricultural biology, and we will support Polish farmers as much as we can.

Thank you for the interview!