New findings reveal a need to optimise the use of phosphorus in agriculture
The first continent-wide assessment of the chemical properties of EU soils reveals high levels of phosphorus in agricultural soils. Fertiliser use has an impact on agriculture and on the environment.
Under most conditions, the use of fertilisers increases the production of biomass, and therefore increases the potential yield and facilitates the capture of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, overuse of fertilisers creates negative environmental issues.
For instance, when water becomes overly enriched with minerals and nutrients it induces excessive growth of algae, which can block the light and deplete the oxygen needed by aquatic plants and animals.
First continent-wide mapping of the chemical properties of soil
As part of the FP7 research project RECARE, JRC scientists have assessed, for the first time at the continental scale, the status of the chemical and physical properties of EU soils.
Using soil samples from LUCAS (the Land Use and Coverage Area frame Survey - the most comprehensive EU soil database available, which contains about 22,000 soil samples from across the EU), they analysed a full range of soil properties - including phosphorus - and their influencing factors. The work was carried out by JRC scientists working in the European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC) of the European Commission.
The new set of maps provides a comprehensive overview of the distribution of chemical properties (including pH, cation exchange capacity, calcium carbonate, carbon nitrogen ratio, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) in the soils of 26 EU countries, an area covering more than 4.5 million km2. For phosphorus, the findings show that the high levels are due to the fertilisation load in agricultural areas.
Optimising use of phosphorus benefits the economy
Phosphorus is a limited resource with significant reserves in just a few countries, none of which are in the EU. Phosphate-based products are mainly sourced from Morocco (22% of total EU imports).
Exports of di-ammonium phosphates (DAP) from Morocco and Russia to the EU increased significantly and reached 70% of total DAP EU imports in 2017. Therefore, optimising the use and application of phosphorus as a fertiliser is beneficial to both the environment and economy of the EU.
Reducing fertiliser use in Europe
Mapping phosphorus concentration in EU soils is crucial for designing long-term agro-environmental policies that do not harm our environment and health, and at the same time guarantee optimal fertilisation rates in EU agriculture. The successive reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy, with a shift away from direct support linked to production of specific crops to decoupled payments, have already led to a strong reduction in fertiliser use.
The EU Member States use their rural development programmes to support farmers in reducing nutrient pollution (nitrogen, phosphorus) from agriculture in order to meet the commitments of the Water Framework Directive. They also provide support for investments in machinery ensuring more efficient fertiliser application or training on best practices.
The Farm Advisory Systems established by the EU Member States help farmers in relation to their obligations to reduce nutrient pollution from agricultural practices to water bodies. The future CAP proposal intends to go one-step further by offering a new digital tool, the Farm Sustainability Tool for nutrients. Its use will help farmers to develop a more accurate nutrient management plan that will improve both the agronomic and environmental performance of their farms.
Fertiliser use in the EU stabilised in recent years. Nowadays, precise fertilisation gives farmers the possibility to adapt their application of nutrients according to plant needs and thereby increase productivity, while reducing fertiliser use.
Mission "soil health"
The European Commission has proposed to set up a "mission" in the area of "Soil health and food" as part of the next Horizon Europe research programme. "Missions" are a new instrument for research and innovation and aim to deliver solutions to major challenges.
A mission in the area of soil health and food will raise awareness on the importance of soils, engage with citizens, create knowledge and develop a range of solutions to address the various challenges for soils and soil management in Europe. A mission in the area of soil health and food will contribute to implementing the new priorities of the European Commission (a "Green Deal") as well as international commitments on climate and sustainable development.
The JRC study will inform the scientific community and EU policymakers about the current state of soil health in Europe. It will also contribute to the GlobalSoilMap project, which aims to produce the first-ever global map of soil properties.