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Plant cover is critical to outcome and provision of ecosystem services in European crop fields

According to a study involving the University of Alicante, the University Rey Juan Carlos and the CSIC published today in the prestigious journal Nature Food



Wheat field selected for the study in Franquesas del Vallés, a town in the Vallés Oriental county, located in the province of Barcelona. Photo by David Sánchez Pescador


Alicante, Wednesday 13 January 2021

An international team involving the University of Alicante, the University Rey Juan Carlos and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) has revealed that the duration of plant cover has a positive effect on the agronomic performance of European crop fields, on their soil biodiversity, and on their ability to provide services such as climate regulation or soil fertility. The study, published today in the prestigious journal Nature Food, suggests that increasing the duration of vegetation cover by using cover crops and/or forage is a good practice to increase the production and functionality of European cereal fields.

Today's agriculture faces an enormous challenge of increasing production as a result of  growing demand, while limiting other methods used so far with a high environmental cost, such as crop expansion, inorganic fertilisation, pesticides and soil tillage. In this context, there is much interest in developing sustainable actions that can increase crop production while maintaining their capacity to provide multiple key ecosystem services, such as soil fertility and climate regulation. One of the most promising approaches to achieving this twin objective today is to promote biodiversity in agricultural fields, both in terms of crops and soil micro-organisms. According to Pablo García-Palacios, Ramón y Cajal researcher at the CSIC Institute of Agricultural Sciences, the study reveals an approach inspired by the ecology of ecosystems to investigate the relationships between crop diversity, soil microbial diversity, agronomic performance and soil functionality by using cereal fields with different management, soil types and climatic conditions.

The results of the study show that the duration of the plant cover in the cereal fields is as important as the type of soil, the climate and the intensity of the agronomic management, through fertilisation, tillage or pesticides. As stated by David Sánchez-Pescador, postdoctoral researcher at the University Rey Juan Carlos and a participant in the study, they have used a European network of 155 cereal fields distributed in Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany and Sweden, where they have measured cereal yields, soil biodiversity (fungi, bacteria, archaea and protists) and more than twenty variables related to soil functionality, as well as conducted surveys of farmers to determine the intensity of management. However, the duration of the plant cover is limited by the climate conditions of the area, for example, low rainfall in southern Spain or low temperatures in northern Sweden. The study highlights the agronomic and environmental benefits that can be derived from considering this simple practice through several varieties of cereal and/or cover crops.

Also, this work emphasises the importance of collaboration between scientists from different disciplines, such as agronomy, ecology, microbiology and biogeochemistry, to carry out cutting-edge research capable of responding to the challenges facing agriculture today. This study is part of the European project  Digging_Deeper, funded by the COFUND BiodivERsa programme and involving more than 20 researchers from five European countries. This type of European consortium makes it possible to carry out studies on a continental scale, which are fundamental for informing political decisions affecting the management of agricultural areas within the European Union, as explained by Fernando T. Maestre, distinguished researcher at the University of Alicante and head researcher of the Spanish team that has participated in the project.



Crop cover is more important than rotational diversity for soil multifunctionality and cereal yields in European cropping systems, Nature Food (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s43016-020-00210-8



 Cereal crop variety trial at the Las Torres - Tomejil Experimental Farm (Andalusian Institute for Agricultural and Fishing Research and Training, Seville). Photo by David Sánchez Pescador








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