Great success of the workshop “Molecular and Traditional Methods to Assess Soil Biodiversity” at the 3rd Global Soil Biodiversity Conference

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Great success of the workshop “Molecular and Traditional Methods to Assess Soil Biodiversity” at the 3rd Global Soil Biodiversity Conference

More than 50 attendees participated in the workshop “Molecular and Traditional Methods to Assess Soil Biodiversity”, co-organized by the three sister projects SoildiverAgro, SOILGUARD, and EXCALIBUR. Very interesting discussions took place on the harmonization of the field, lab and date processing methods, the benefits of this harmonization, and current initiatives at European level covering the soil biodiversity challenge, such as SoilBON, EUdaphobase and JRC LUCAS.

You can find below the presentation shown by Stefano Mocali, coordinator of EXCALIBUR project, during the workshop. Thanks to all the speakers and attendees for such a fruitful workshop!

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Final conclusions of the workshop “Molecular and Traditional Methods to Assess Soil Biodiversity” held at the 3rd Global Soil Biodiversity Conference

Last 14th March, three sister projects funded under the Horizon 2020 programme of the European Commission, SoildiverAgro, EXCALIBUR and SOILGUARD, joined efforts and organised a workshop during the 3rd Global Soil Biodiversity Conference at Dublin (Ireland). The workshop focused on molecular and traditional methods to assess soil biodiversity.

More than 50 participants attended the first slot of this workshop focused on showing the different aims and outcomes, as well as the different methodologies used for soil biodiversity assessment within the three sister projects.

General view of the attendees to the workshop

General view of the attendees to the workshop

SoildiverAgro was introduced by its project coordinator David Fernández Calviño (University of Vigo), who highlighted the project’s main objectives, focused on the adoption of new management practices and cropping systems that enhance soil genetic and functional biodiversity to reduce the use of external inputs while increasing crop production and quality, the delivery of ecosystem services and the EU agricultural stability and resilience.

David Fernández from SoildiverAgro

David Fernández from SoildiverAgro

Next, Martin Hartmann (ETH Zurich), work package leader on the SOILGUARD project, explained how the project is working to develop a conceptual and analytical framework with the potential to become the global standard for future assessments of soil biodiversity status. His presentation highlighted the major knowledge gaps being addressed by the project (current status of soil biodiversity across biomes and biogeographical regions; the weight of soil biodiversity in delivering soil-mediated nature’s contribution -NCP- to people and their economic and socio-cultural value; and the influence of soil degradation on soil biodiversity and NCP delivery). Martin then presented the four molecular approaches being used to assess soil biodiversity as well as the considerations, challenges, and barriers for methodological harmonisation in soil biodiversity assessment.

Martin Hartmann from SOILGUARD

Martin Hartmann from SOILGUARD

Last but not least, EXCALIBUR’s project coordinator Stefano Mocali (CREA), set out the aim to enhance the efficacy of microbial biostimulants and biopesticides capable of improving crop efficiency and protection, respectively, by stimulating the native soil biodiversity, thus reducing the use of chemical inputs towards a more sustainable agriculture, aligned with the goals of the Common Agricultural Policy, the EU Green Deal, and the Farm to Fork Strategy.

Stefano Mocali from EXCALIBUR

Stefano Mocali from EXCALIBUR

Following the three project presentations, an active panel discussion was held between participants, where some key questions were addressed:

• Which are the main barriers to harmonisation at a global scale? Answers such as collaboration, cultural differences or methodology and technology arose:

• Do you think is feasible to harmonize the field methods related to sampling or processing, as well as lab methods or data processing? The majority of participants answered positively:

The discussion on how to concretely reach this harmonisation developed into a vivid discussion with different points of view from various scientific fields. Expertise from agronomists, engineers, biologists, and more were shared, providing key insights from different stakeholders.

A key challenge was highlighted. Participants stated that they find it difficult to access results from research projects and further information on methodologies used by each project is not always easily accessible.

This is an important gap that must be addressed by future projects.

After the lunch break, the workshop’s second slot began.

The second session focused on three relevant soil biodiversity-related initiatives: SoilBon, Edaphobase and LUCAs.

Similar to the first session, each initiative introduced its main objectives and pointed out the barriers they face when trying to harmonise methods.

Carlos Guerra (IDiv) introduced SoilBON as a global partnership collaborating with other global and regional partners to increase the availability of soil biological and ecosystem observations needed to ensure living soil resources are sustainably conserved and managed and can support essential human needs.

Carlos Guerra from SoilBON

Carlos Guerra from SoilBON

EUdaphobase COST Action was presented by Clement Schneider. This initiative aims to create the structures and procedures necessary for developing an open European-wide soil biodiversity data infrastructure. The ultimate goal of EUdaphobase is to establish a pan-European soil-biological data and knowledge warehouse, which can be used for understanding, protecting and sustainably managing soils, their biodiversity and functions.

Clement Schneider from EUdaphobase

Alberto Orgiazzi presented LUCAS (Land Use/Cover Area frame statistical Survey) virtually, a European Commission’s initiative that gathers information on land cover and use by means of regular, harmonised surveys across the European Union.

Alberto Orgiazzi from JRC LUCAS

Alberto Orgiazzi from JRC LUCAS

Discussions were held on the similarities and differences between LUCAS and SOIlBon’s approaches to soil assessment. Aspects such as the length of samples were discussed as this is a key point relating to decomposition time.

Participants were asked what impressed them most from the three initiatives presented and some of the answers were unconnected, organised, and simplicity of sampling among others:

When asked if they thought there were enough initiatives at the European level covering the biodiversity challenge 14 votes to 7 answered yes:

Regarding the support structures to better harmonise methods, the participants pointed out the need for training structures and the involvement of external companies:

When asked if it was desirable to have only one initiative join efforts, the votes were split relatively equally (8 participants voted yes and 6 voted no):

And for the last question related to the benefits of methodological harmonisation, participants answered with terms such as comparability, standardisation, information sharing, statistical power…:

Final synthesis

Throughout the workshop session, Martin Hartmann from SOILGUARD collected the main discussion points on the whiteboard and provided a brief synthesis at the end of the workshop. The participants engaged in lively debate surrounding the complexities of harmonizing seemingly straightforward tasks such as collecting, processing, shipping, and storing soil samples. Despite the fact that the majority of the participants agreed that harmonization is feasible (see polls above), there was little consensus reached among the audience. For example, while global biodiversity initiatives like SoilBON require simplified protocols to facilitate sample collection across the globe, these approaches often fall short of the scientific standards necessary for accurate comparisons across biomes and sites. Despite these challenges, the participants acknowledged that the initial steps of sample collection and processing might be more critical than the downstream analytical approaches and data processing pipelines. Therefore, effective communication and documentation, including universally understandable terminologies, are key components in facilitating fair comparisons across samples.

When selecting analytical methods for assessing soil biodiversity, it may be necessary to prioritize applicability over scientific accuracy in order to ensure inclusiveness in large-scale assessment initiatives across borders. Nonetheless, reliable benchmarks for these methods, preferably established across multiple labs, are essential and need to be established in the near future.

Despite the differences of opinion regarding how to harmonize soil biodiversity assessment schemes, it is evident that these initiatives and projects will shape future policies. As such, discussions like those held during this workshop must be conducted with careful thought and a high degree of responsibility. Furthermore, since these efforts are funded with public resources, the scientific community bears a responsibility to develop inclusive, well-developed, and benchmarked protocols that integrate with other initiatives to ultimately shape not only scientific advancements but also future policies.

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