Farmland occupies around 50% of Europe?s land area and farming activities have shaped a rich variety of landscapes and habitats. It plays a vital role in maintaining natural resources and cultural landscapes and is crucial for many human activities. However, inappropriate agricultural practices also cause adverse environmental effects, including degradation and pollution of soil, water shortages and pollution, air pollution, fragmentation of habitats and loss of biodiversity.
In Spain, agricultural yields have been falling steadily, unless propped up by irrigation or the use of fertilisers and pesticides. It is only because of EU farm subsidies that agriculture persists in less prosperous areas. Every year, large tracts of land fall into disuse, as erosion and drier soils mean farming is no longer viable. Currently in Spain, the organic matter content of dry lands ranges from 0.0 to 0.5%. Organic agriculture has long been recognised to benefit soils, but it continues to be scarcely applied in these poor-soil areas. This is mainly attributed to insufficient knowledge about optimal application techniques and the perception of low economic benefits unless supported by subsidies.
The Crops for better soil project aimed to show that the application of organic farming techniques can make cultivation of semi-arid land economically viable, by demonstrating an alternative to current erosive farming practices and land abandonment in areas with vulnerable dry soil types. The project examined optimal combinations of methodologies (crop rotation; fertilisation with compost; and re-introduction of traditional crops) to achieve the best soil and crop quality results for specific soil and climate conditions. It planned to sow a variety of crops - including the re-introduction of at least five traditional crops - in a range of soil types with different characteristics (e.g. acidity, erosion, stones, organic matter, and humidity). The project aimed to apply weather stations and innovative sensor technologies to monitor, analyse and manage the different variables of study sites, and to compare them with control areas. Farmers collaborating with the project received tailored training to enable their effective participation.
The Crops for better soil project demonstrated that the key to long-term agricultural sustainability in rain-fed areas is the implementation of appropriate soil management techniques, such as: 3-year cycle crop rotations (or longer), mixed crops (legumes-cereals), mechanical methods for weed control, vertical tillage systems to prepare the land and avoid compaction, and the re-introduction of traditional crops that adapt well to semi-arid Mediterranean areas.
The project therefore showed that organic farming methods can provide mid- and long-term solutions for soil recovery, while also increasing the yield performance due to the decrease in production costs (especially consumables) to generate higher profits for farmers.
A range of environmental benefits are realised using the project?s approach. There is a significant improvement in soil quality, due to higher organic content and water-retention capacity, increased soil respiration, and fewer weeds. This facilitates improvements in crop yields. The project results demonstrate that a coherent set of interventions, such as introducing traditional crops, incorporating the use of protean crops instead of fallow, decompaction interventions and controlling weed flora, can improve resource efficiency and increase yield per hectares.
The project team established potential revenues for organic agriculture on rain-fed lands, to demonstrate its economic viability. Switching to sustainable agriculture practices was promoted, as a means of complying with Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) norms and greening policies. The project team measured the CO2 footprint of the experimental plots, showing that the decreased inputs in several types of operations per hectare in organic farming is more sustainable than those produced in a conventional manner (50% reduction average).
The project demonstrations show that organic farming can be an economically profitable activity, even without being sustained by state subsidy programmes co-financed by the EU. This supports its wider introduction and the abolishment of these subsidies in the long run. The selection of a wide variety of very poor soils should provide sufficient knowledge for the broad transferability of results. The focus on economic sustainability, together with broad dissemination of results and cooperation with other LIFE projects and other agricultural initiatives, also provides opportunities for the broad replication of outcomes.
Crops for better soil contributes information and results for policy deliberation at all governmental levels. It directly contributes to the European Action Plan for Organic Food and Farming (COM(2004)415) and, more generally, to EU rural development policy, which targets investment in more sustainable agricultural practices, such as organic agriculture.
An important project innovation was the re-introduction of traditional crops. Non-standard cereals and legumes are often seen as a risk by farmers due to marketing uncertainties, and they have not previously featured in soil restoration initiatives. The project demonstrated the economic viability of traditional crops, and their beneficial effect on soil quality. The crops tested included the cereals spelt, candela wheat, oats, rye, triticale, buckwheat and Chamorro wheat; and the legumes blue lupines, field beans, chick peas, lentils and fava beans. Rotation was proposed with oil seeds like sunflower, linseed, safflower and canola. This approach also supports the conservation of local crop biodiversity.
Restoring agricultural land to profitability increases economic opportunities in rural areas, particularly regarding young people, and thus combats the abandonment of farming land. The project?s techniques could also be applied to high-value crops and on irrigated land to improve soil quality and benefit farmers economically. Farmers participating in the project provide successful examples of the transition to organic farming in rain-fed areas, which could lead to more land being transitioned to organic farming in these areas in the future.