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Policy options

SmartSOIL Policy Recommendations

1 Increase awareness of the role of soil organic carbon in delivering soil quality and soil fertility (and multiple ecosystem services) among policy makers and address the issue in policy. Read more...
2 Support pilot projects and provide incentives to farmers for implementing monitoring schemes / bookkeeping at farm level to monitor their carbon budgets (e.g. through Rural Development Programmes, European Innovation Partnership (EIP) initiatives. Read more...
3 Increase the baseline and mandatory requirements for farmers related to soil quality in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Read more...
4 Improve the Rural Development Programmes (RDPs) so that they address soil quality management in a more coherent and targeted manner, including possible targets and benchmarking for soil protection objectives (in addition to targets related to biodiversity, water, climate change, resource efficiency, and air quality.
Read more...
5 Improve the participation of farmers and other soil stakeholders in the process of designing and implementing RDPs. Read more...
6 Increase learning amongst farmers and advisers through: a) cooperation and demonstration opportunities to problem-solve around soil quality management, and b) training and demonstration to enhance awareness and understanding of the importance and benefits of soil organic carbon. Read more...

 Principles for soil carbon management

Based on the scientific results from SmartSOIL project, key principles for management of soil organic carbon (SOC)[1] were identified. Adopting these principles can enable the delivery of the full benefits for soil productivity and soil quality in the short and long term. Therefore, these principles informed the development of policy recommendations, and include:

  • Soil organic carbon is sustained through sufficient inputs of organic matter from roots, crop residues, manure and compost to (out)balance losses from decomposition of soil organic matter.
  • Soil organic matter[2] contributes to sustaining soil productivity by enhancing soil water retention and nutrient supply. Also, soil organic carbon enhances soil structure and workability of high clay content soils.
  • Inputs of organic matter to the soil contributes to sustaining soil biodiversity, which also influences pests and diseases (positively and negatively) requiring management targeted to local conditions.
  • Preservation of current soil carbon stocks as well as enhancing these plays an important role for contributing to climate change mitigation. However, potential trade-offs with increased emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases (methane and nitrous oxide) as well as saturation of the carbon storage potential over time have to be considered.
  • Effective management of soil organic carbon requires a long-term effort, has implications that extend beyond each farm, and this commitment is more effective if it is a key element in strategic farm management.
  • Soil carbon management depends on current soil carbon levels. On soils with acceptable or good soil carbon, the aim is to maintain these levels of soil carbon, whereas effective action needs to be taken on soils with low carbon to enhance contents. Measures in both cases involve adapted crop rotations, residue retention, manure application and cover crops. Such actions can be combined with no-tillage practices to further enhance soil carbon and improve soil structure in near-surface soil layers.
  • Soil organic carbon management also involves management of nitrogen and phosphorus, and soil carbon management needs to be seen in the context of farm-scale nutrient management. The full benefits of enhanced soil organic matter levels on crop yield are only fully captured if the actions undertaken to enhance soil organic matter are timed well to provide the water and nutrients (in particular nitrogen) that the crop needs, if soil carbon management is aligned with appropriate management to prevent and control weeds, pests and diseases. This requires adaptation of the management actions to local soil and climatic conditions as well as to (region) specific farming systems.

SmartSOIL policy recommendations for improving soil carbon management in the European Union

1.Increase awareness of the role of soil organic carbon in delivering soil quality and soil fertility (and multiple ecosystem services) among policy makers and address the issue in policy 

This recommendation is crucial to moving forward with policy approaches that address SOC management for the multiple co-benefits that it provides, e.g., improved nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) efficiency, improved water harvesting and water use, better soil structure, less erosion and run-off of diffuse pollution, and carbon storage. A systematic approach is needed to build up the capacity of national and regional policy-makers for making decisions on what types of technical and policy measures are required in their Member State / region to improve soil carbon management and soil quality on agricultural soils more broadly.

In the absence of an overarching EU Soil Framework Directive, soil protection is addressed mostly indirectly at EU level with only a few exceptions such as the Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) standards under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In addition, many Member States do not have specific and/or comprehensive national soil protection frameworks. However, in order to mainstream capacity building for SOC management across the EU and provide a stimulus to address the issue in policy, a formal basis in EU, and by extension in Member State, policy would be beneficial. One practical possibility for establishing this formal basis would be to use the process of integrating Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry (LULUCF) in the 2020-2030 climate framework. Integrating soil carbon in the target setting under the EU climate policy (e.g. under the Effort Sharing Decision) and full accounting for soil carbon would create incentives for soil carbon preservation and sequestration. An EU-wide technical working group on soil carbon management and ecosystem services could be linked to the climate and LULUCF policy process to accompany and guide the implementation. Alternatively, such a technical group could also be linked to the 7thEnvironment Action Programme, which explicitly states that “efforts to reduce soil erosion and increase soil organic matter” are required to preserve soil quality as a key element of protecting EU’s natural capital. In addition, other informal options could be explored, for example, under the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) for Agriculture and Sustainability, the European Rural Development Network, or an international action plan for soils and climate change[3].  Whichever option is pursued, framing soil organic carbon preservation and sequestration as part of a holistic and integrated approach to soil quality protection would ensure that interactions with other relevant soil threats, ecosystem services, and sectors are adequately considered.

An important element of building up the capacity for decision-making is the monitoring and mapping of soil organic carbon. Policy action is likely to be more successful if underpinned by adequate soil carbon stock monitoring and measurements as well as improved understanding of carbon balances at farm and regional scale over time. The enhancement or establishment of risk mapping to indicate where losses of SOC are occurring and/or SOC balances are negative, and where the potential is greatest to enhance environmental services via SOC, can provide the baseline to evaluate the extent of the problem and to help target appropriate approaches toward such hotspots. Such risk maps for SOC management, which can be used for targeting of policy measures, would provide a welcome step forward. In addition, highlighting and detailing the contribution of SOC management in reaching individual policy objectives within the areas of agriculture, food security, environmental protection and climate change mitigation and adaptation could be helpful. Go to Top 


2. Support pilot projects and provide incentives to farmers for implementing monitoring schemes / bookkeeping at farm level to monitor their carbon budgets (e.g. through Rural Development Programmes, European Innovation Partnership (EIP) initiatives)

Optimal solutions for SOC management are complex, system- and region-specific, and their impact also depends on previous and actual farm management and farmers’ skills. The design and impact of actions needs to take into account variability and complexity across geographic zones, farming systems, and management.

Long-term farm-level monitoring and bookkeeping would integrate the monitoring of organic matter inputs and outputs[4] and losses in the form of a balance sheet in combination with nutrient (N and P) management and management practices. The results in such a balance could provide an important learning experience and baseline for monitoring trends and effects of SOC management. The data can be pooled and made available to researchers, policymakers and farmers. There remains a degree of uncertainty about the effect of specific management actions and their combinations in different locations, systems and management choices, and there is also still limited awareness among farmers about the role of soil carbon for soil quality at the farm level. In this context, monitoring and bookkeeping, including through the use of climate audit tools (such as the JRC carbon calculator[5]), would enable policy makers and farmers to select appropriate management practices for improving soil carbon, soil quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions on their farms. Over a period of 5 – 10 years it would provide a useful baseline and information on trends for management practices in different areas and farming systems. Determining a carbon balance (and defining the farm-level baseline) together with the broader nutrient balance of the farm would be a possible way to emphasize the synergies between management of carbon and nutrients (in particular N and P), and establish a more holistic and integrated soil management approach.

Pilot schemes for soil sampling, monitoring and bookkeeping could be implemented through the agri-environment-climate measure and/or the cooperation measure under the Rural Development Programmes (RDPs). Any type of monitoring and bookkeeping efforts would need to consider the interactions between soil C, N and P, and build on and be integrated with existing tools and monitoring (such as nutrient balance calculators at farm level) in order to minimise effort and time needed to use these tools. If monitoring and bookkeeping for SOC were done in a carefully selected sample of demonstration farms, it could also provide a good learning ground for research and LULUCF accounting as well. Improved understanding of the link between management options and measured SOC levels, and better activity data on farm management would be important for improving LULUCF accounting.

Based on the monitoring and bookkeeping results, a context specific menu of management options that have the potential to improve the situation could be developed. Building on the experiences of the pilot projects, simplified carbon balances at farm level could be introduced as a mandatory requirement  in Pillar 1 of CAP for the post 2020 period together with the requirement that farms demonstrate a neutral or positive carbon balance for their soils.  This could be integrated as part of existing greening requirements, or as a component of a proposed Soil Quality Action Plan (see recommendation N°3). 

An additional possibility to promote soil monitoring would be to encourage private arrangements outside of the CAP where monitoring of soil conditions would be linked to tenancy agreements, i.e. the tenant would be required to return the soil in as good a condition as received at the start of the agreement. Go to Top


3. Increase the baseline and mandatory requirements for farmers related to soil quality in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)

As the principles of SOC management point out, there are certain practices which are known to benefit soil organic matter (SOM) levels and SOC. It is also recognized that the priority is to maintain good SOC levels in the first place, rather than later having to invest in the challenging process of rebuilding them.

The greening measures under the Pillar 1 of CAP have not undergone solid testing on effectiveness yet, including their effects on maintaining SOC levels in arable areas (i.e. in particular crop diversification requirements and the equivalent measures that will be used by Member States). Based on critical screening of implementation, the effects for SOC and soil quality more broadly need to be evaluated, and as needed improved. This could be done by adding a requirement to conduct a carbon balance and carry out additional measures in case the balance is not at least neutral (i.e. no loss of soil organic carbon is occurring).

Another option for increasing the delivery of soil quality objectives in the Pillar 1  is to add a requirement for a  Soil Quality Action Plan (SQAP) for agricultural soils, which address soil quality more broadly with soil carbon as one component. This could first be developed and tested on a voluntary / pilot basis in several Member States in the 2017 – 2020 period. The results of this pilot phase would be evaluated and potential implementation mechanisms assessed to inform the implementation for the post-2020 period. As part of the SQAP, a menu of proven soil management measures would be made available, where Member States would select a package of the relevant measures to the soil threats at hand and adapt these to the regional context with a particular focus on risk areas. Farmers would then have a menu of measures that they would implement at farm level. This could later also integrate an element of bookkeeping and monitoring for soil quality and soil organic carbon. Go to Top


4. Improve the Rural Development Programmes (RDPs) so that they address soil quality management in a more coherent and targeted manner, including possible targets and benchmarking for soil protection objectives (in addition to targets related to biodiversity, water, climate change, resource efficiency, and air quality)

The significant resources and flexibility that are channeled through the RDPs could be integrated more effectively with the objective of soil protection, which many RDPs highlight but fail to coherently address[6]. Better identification of soils and areas at risk of SOC loss can guide targeting and improving local conditions, Advisory service training and capacity building, as well as cooperation between farmers in the form of exchanges, benchmarking and demonstration farms/pilot projects could be better integrated with soil protection. The RDPs can provide incentives to farmers to overcome the extra costs of implementation of measures which go beyond the regulatory baseline. The RDPs should clearly indicate measurable targets for soil protection in addition to other key environmental objectives (for example, where possible indicate the share of the RDP budget targeted to the soil protection objective). Go to Top


5.  Improve the participation of farmers and other soil stakeholders in the process of designing and implementing RDPs

In order to select and implement feasible solutions that are cost-effective, it is essential to actively engage farmers as owners of solutions to context-specific problems both in the policy design process (e.g. drafting of the RDP) as well as technical implementation at farm level. This increases ownership of solutions and thus encourage uptake of RDP actions among farmers. Furthermore, this is also linked to increasing the role of collective approaches (cooperation between various stakeholders – researchers, farmers and policy makers), for example supported through the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) to derive bottom-up strategies tailored to local contexts, rather than top-down micro-managed approaches. Go to Top  


6. Increase learning amongst farmers and advisers through: a) cooperation and demonstration opportunities to problem-solve around soil quality management, and b) training and demonstration to enhance awareness and understanding of the importance and benefits of soil organic carbon

Supporting the learning processes and capacity building among farmers and farm advisors is important  due to the many barriers to encouraging and/or requiring improved SOC management, in particular lack of knowledge and highr costs of implementation. It is also key given the importance of regional and farm- specific management choices, and appropriate adaptations of management measures at these scales.  

Stakeholders have provided feedback that cooperation and demonstration are key ways in which new research and management changes should be disseminated due to farmers’ preference to hear about other farmers’ successes and methods of implementation to inform their decisions. The cooperation measure[7]  under the RDPs would be a very useful tool to support learning by providing funds for joint action by groups of farmers, advisors, researchers, business, etc. (in the form of farmer-to-farmer exchanges, pilot projects to test new solutions, field visits, installing demonstration fields managed by farmers). The European Commission has indicated that up to 2,000 pilot projects are expected under the Cooperation measure for the 2014 – 2020 period. Additionally, the EIPs could provide an important forum for developing and testing the tools for increased joint monitoring of nutrients, such as N, P and C. In addition, LIFE funding programme offers opportunities for cooperation projects aimed at demonstration and transfer into practice. Systematically learning from pilot projects on soil and SOC management would deliver a valuable base for further action.

Moreover, in addition to the cooperation and demonstration activities which tend to attract more innovative farmers and those actively searching for solutions, training and demonstration aimed at mainstreaming soil quality management among the whole farming community are of great importance. Go to Top


 

 

 

 

 

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Revised 25.10.2015