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Soil passport: producing healthy and safe food starts with good-quality soil

A series of guest lectures ‘What About Soil? ’, currently being given at HAS University of Applied Sciences, is emphasising the importance of soil quality. They’re stressing the need to combine sustainable soil management and soil fertility and are bringing the worlds of environmental specialists and agricultural entrepreneurs together. After all, these groups can benefit considerably from each other: producing healthy and safe food starts with a maintainable soil quality. But what do agricultural entrepreneurs actually know about soil? And how can we make them aware of the importance of good soil?

These are just some of the questions being tackled in a series of professional assignments that HAS University of Applied Sciences and the Southern Netherlands Agriculture and Horticulture Organization (ZLTO) are carrying out together. Their aim is to come up with a soil passport as a tool to help maintain and even improve the quality of the soil. Students from the HAS study programme Horticulture & Business Management (HBM) and Environmental Studies are working closely with the ZLTO, who have taken a leading role in developing such a soil passport. Arno Peekel, programme leader Soil at the ZLTO, is involved in the students’ assignments.

Consciously treating the land with care

“Within the professional assignments, the students are focusing on leased land,” says HBM lecturer, Toine Buijs. “Farmers lease such land generally for between 4 and 6 years, and research has shown that this land often deteriorates. This is because land is expensive and so they want to get as much out of it as possible. And that isn’t necessarily good for the land. The aim of the soil passport is to make farmers aware of the fact that, as good stewards, they should treat the land with care, so that it not only retains its economic value, but also so that it eases some of the burden on the environment.”

Careful introduction

The soil passport will be brought out as a tool. Toine : “We hope that farmers embrace the soil passport. We’re passing on knowledge that will allow them to see how important it is to work with the tool. It’s not our intention that farmers feel that have to justify their actions. That’s why we decided to only introduce the passport when we knew for certain that it worked.” This is now the case, and so the passport will be launched on 1 January 2018.

Setting up parameters

So what does a soil passport actually look like? During the professional assignment currently being carried out, students are focussing on setting up a number of parameters that enable you to measure the quality of the soil. They will then test these parameters in practice. Examples include the pH value of the soil, biodiversity, quantity of organic matter, the land’s self-purification capabilities etc. Some parameters are easy to determine, such as the pH value. But there are also a few difficult ones, for example determining the soil life.

The 2 specialisms complement each another well

Toine is involved with the professional assignment as an expert, and is supporting the students in the way they need to look at the land, as well as what you can determine from looking at the crop growing there. Students can also use soil scans from precision agriculture when determining the parameters as these provide a good indication of the quality of the soil. Toine is enthusiastic about the collaboration between HBM and Environmental Studies: “Arable farmers, for example, know a lot about soil and production processes, and environmental specialists can write a sustainability strategy based on their input. The 2 specialisms complement each another well.”

Broadening horizons

Marie-Jeanne Groffen, Environmental Studies lecturer in soil is also enthusiastic about the collaboration. “Not only are the students learning a lot from each another and complementing each other’s expertise, as lecturers we too are broadening our horizons each week. Toine, for example, is teaching me about the behaviour of roots and the measures a farmer takes to improve the soil. In return, Toine is learning more about sustainability, and perseverance when it comes to using the soil. For climate adaptation, for example, and other ecosystem services that the soil has to offer.”

Removing unnecessary barriers

“And last but not least, we’re learning a lot from our client.” Marie-Jeanne continues. “Arno has a good strategy and a great tool to generate support among the farmers for the much-needed improvements to our approach to soil management. The 2nd professional assignment is currently underway and a 3rd is ready to start. I believe this is an excellent example of how good projects with leaders from the sector can remove unnecessary barriers in the broadest sense.”

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Gepubliceerd op 15 december 2016