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Master plan for the soil

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​​​​​​As a water filter, a habitat, a nutritional basis – soil performs many functions. But it is also vulnerable. Its structure suffers under machines that weigh tons. The lack of diversity in the cultivation of crop rotations can promote diseases and heavy rain frequently washes away fertile soil layers. If soils are to continue to feed mankind in the future, something has to change. Agricultural scientist Anja-Kristina Techen is investigating what this change might entail.

A broad strip of tall poplar trees are standing in the field, growing right beside it are stalks of wheat. Trees and cereals alternate in a regular pattern, row by row throughout the countryside. Wheat, maize or oats grow between tall trees. This type of cultivation, which experts refer to as an agroforestry system, can so far only be seen in Germany on a few test areas. But this method could catch on because it has certain advantages: The woodland strips protect the soil and the crops from wind and water evaporation and are home to numerous beneficial organisms. Supporters of agroforestry hope these positive effects will lead to more stable and higher yields. Trees and arable crops on one area – this is just one of many ideas that could change the face of agriculture. Dr. Anja-Kristina Techen from the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) examines which measures are particularly promising for soil management. She works in the BMBF-funded BonaRes project, Germany‘s largest research network on the topic of soil. The results of the work are intended to show how soil can be used more sustainably in the future. How yields can be increased while protecting the soil at the same time.


Smaller and lighter

But what exactly could agriculture look like in five, ten or 20 years’ time? How will crops be sown, fertilized, irrigated, cultivated or harvested in the future? Techen has been poring over page after page of specialist literature to find answers to these questions. She is looking for indications of changes, for reasons and incentives for a new type of soil management. To date, she has evaluated more than 260 literature sources and interviewed experts from science, practice and politics. 

It is evident: "There are strong signals for change." Smaller, more diverse, more digital – while some approaches have so far only been discussed in research, others are already becoming more specific. 

 Digitization, for example, has long since arrived in the field – and it will continue to intensify. "We will have more autonomous agricultural machines, there is no doubt about that", explains Techen. This is not just about self-propelled combine harvesters or tractors that navigate by GPS. For the soil functions, it does not matter whether a heavy machine is driven by a person or moves autonomously across the field. Up until now, large machines are still the trend, but small, light field robots are already in the pipeline. Equipped with sensors and cameras, they can control weeds, apply fertilizers or treat diseases more precisely. Some of these small, smart devices are already in use on test areas.​


The change is visible

However, it is still uncertain whether small autonomous machines will really shape the agriculture of the future. Experts do not expect their widespread use for another 15 to 20 years. One thing is clear, however: "We have reached the limit. Larger and more productive agricultural machines are practically impossible", says Techen. A limit seems also being reached with crop rotations, in which the same crop species are continually cultivated in quick succession. They can only be achieved by using large amounts of pesticides and have now also produced undesirable side effects: More and more weeds, pathogens and pests are developing resistance to the chemicals used. Slender foxtail and wind bent grass are typical grasses whose occurrence in some regions is now almost impossible to control with pesticides. The use of ever more crop protection products is thus leading to a dead end and the yield increases achieved in the fields are more and more often not worth the extra cost. The pressure to rethink is growing. 

While field robotics is still in its early stages, other technologies are further advanced: Many agricultural machines are digitized. So-called "Precision Farming", for example, lets algorithms optimize the routes a machine travels on the field, and sensors automatically control the tire pressure in order to protect the soil. Fertilizers and pesticides are no longer used all over the land, but only where there is a lack of nutrients. Although further development is still required, simpler versions of these technologies are already in use in some areas. Mixed cropping could also experience a renaissance. "The mixed cultivation of wheat and legumes such as beans offers the opportunity of increasing yields and at the same time positively influencing soil life", explains Techen. Another good idea, even if not new: deep-rooted crop plants could loosen up soils that have been compacted by machines.


Questions of the future

Future scenarios, which are developed in the BonaRes network with stakeholders from agriculture and other interested parties, illustrate the consequences the different methods have on soils and their quality. What are the risks and opportunities involved? Which soil functions will be promoted or restricted? And how will this affect the yield? "There are many unanswered questions", Techen explains. Questions about the biological, chemical and physical processes that ​characterize soil structures and how they are influenced by human interference. However, the analyses go even further: they are to assess the ecological, economic as well as social impacts. After all, there is the question of how jobs could be effected by autonomous agricultural machinery. Anja-Kristina Techen knows: These are urgent issues, but whether new methods and technologies will prevail is not least a question of cost and time. Farmers will continue to use machines that they have already bought for a long time; well-established working methods will not be abandoned overnight. "This is where research is called for", she says. Research must not only show what effects the newly developed ideas will have on the soil, but also whether they will satisfy economic requirements and can be implemented in practice. This knowledge is necessary to pave the way for a social discussion on the agriculture of the future.


Text: Heike Kampe


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