Theme Healthy soil and crops

We deliberately put the soil at the heart of our research on crop production. After all, sustainable agriculture and horticulture strives for highquality production with as few inputs as possible and recognizes the importance of the soil as the most strategically important production resource. In all our research we start from a systems view of soil and crops. As a result, we know that methods to improve the quality and ecosystem functions of agricultural soils go hand in hand with efforts to keep crops healthy and cropping systems robust. We strive to minimize risks of nutrient losses, greenhouse gas emissions, and soil compaction, and maximize our efforts to close loops and store carbon.

On the basis of our experimentally substantiated improvement processes, we formulate clear advice to farmers, growers and policy makers. We play our part as an expert in numerous soil partnerships in Flanders, Europe and even worldwide.

Data-driven tools and techniques

ILVO wants to improve the soil with data-driven soil management. To this end we use innovative techniques such as soil scans, sensors, remote sensing, tractor and machine data and the smart integration of data sources. We are also actively working on opening up data for soil applications such as the Flemish Soil Passport. ILVO is pulling out all the stops in the areas of water storage, infiltration and variable irrigation. A better understanding of the role of microbial soil life in the interaction between soil and plants, through the use of new data-driven techniques, is also an important ambition.

Carbon farming

By storing carbon in agricultural soils, we can remove CO2 from the atmosphere. ILVO inventories the carbon storage potential in Flanders, improves carbon simulation models and investigates the possible effects of measures to promote carbon storage. We are also looking at various possibilities for setting up an accurate and cost-efficient system for monitoring, reporting and verification. This should form the basis for a fair compensation system for those who make efforts to increase the carbon content under their fields.

Valorizing soil functions

Healthy soil is not only essential for good crop production. It also provides ecosystem services, such as carbon storage, biodiversity, water buffering, and nutrient retention and release. Farmers have techniques at their disposal to promote these soil functions, but their added value is not always reflected within their business model. There are still many technical and monitoring issues to be resolved, but ultimately society, the climate and agriculture itself will reap the benefits of these soil improvement efforts. ILVO proactively follows up on the developments and discussions regarding potential earning models in order to make a fair remuneration of these efforts negotiable

Crop protection: a major challenge

ILVO actively supports the European ambition to take a more bio-based approach to plant health. Simultaneously, the climate crisis and the growing international plant trade are increasing the number of pathogens and pests. This combination of factors makes crop protection an ever-greater challenge. Continued control of the growing number of plant pathogens and other threats will require an acceleration in terms of methodology. We are studying on the potential of mixed crops and the interaction between host plants and pathogens, pests and soil life.

Focus on prevention

We continue to focus on rapid, sensitive and accurate detection and diagnostic techniques. The new high throughput sequencing technology demonstrates how we can integrate innovative technologies into both research and diagnostics. However, prevention is being emphasized more than ever, with ILVO exploring the possibilities of permanent monitoring. Such monitoring involves not only researchers, producers and policy makers, but also motivated social and citizen groups, such as students or citizen scientists. We link official monitoring data to data from public observation platforms and powerful prediction models. This allows us to conduct rapid and targeted risk analyses.

Multidisciplinary focus on weeds

The interaction between crops and so-called ‘weeds’ is an area of knowledge that has yet to be explored. Weeds form a nutritional symbiosis with the crops. The challenge is to better understand the coherence of that complex ecosystem so that we can identify elements that keep the whole in balance while providing an advantage to the cultivated crops. Building up expertise in herbology can potentially contribute to efficient weed maintenance with fewer chemical herbicides.

Robot weeder

In the field of technical, non-chemical weed control, ILVO mainly aims to use its capacities in the field of digital engineering and AI. In the long run, we want to help develop robots that recognize unwanted plants using artificial intelligence and pull them out using the most appropriate movement. Our knowledge of the market (price, technical performance, etc.) and our open collaborations with private and research partners bring the development process within reach.

Away from polarization

Europe prioritizes more than just a bio-based approach for the control of plant diseases and weeds: socio-economic aspects must also be interwoven with fundamental research. We are thinking here, among other things, of the acceptance of certain techniques by the general public. Any search for biological control agents should, from the start, take into account possible resistance on the part of consumers.

Contact an expert

Isabel Roldán-Ruiz

Isabel Roldán-Ruiz

Scientific director, ILVO Plant Sciences department

Contact

See also

Video 05/01/2023

Climate change and soil health

Soil and crop management practices and the water regulation functions of soils - Sarah Garré
This video abstract introduces the paper entitled "Soil and crop management practices and the water regulation functions of soils".