Theme Healthy crops

The agri-food system of the future must be both ecologically and socio-economically resilient and it must supply healthy food crops and food products. The most sustainable production is achieved by striving for optimal plant, animal and soil health. That is ILVO's goal.


Healthy crops: Diseases and pests

The health of plants is mostly determined by the presence or absence of harmful organisms, but also through the sensitivity and defense capabilities of the plants. ILVO’s research on diseases and pests on plants has three main points:

  1. To continually assess possible new threats of pests and pathogens to ensure timely and adequate intervention. ILVO’s research has a strong international orientation. That is necessary, among others, to research the increased risk of introduction, spread and impact by new harmful organisms. The highly intensified international trade as well as the changing climate reinforce this phenomenon.
  2. The development of management strategies for important diseases and pests in our crops in the context of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Flemish agri- and horticultural production must focus on cultivation systems that lead to ‘high value crops’ with low residues of plant protection products. Crop security and value creation are central here.
  3. Soil conditioning. The awareness is growing that a healthy soil life – all fungi, bacteria and living organisms, perhaps even more than the physical and mineral composition of the soil - influences the plant’s natural resilience and defenses against diseases and pests. We focus on soil research because soil, in contrast to the climate, must be well-managed in function of plant health.

Mixed crop farming and crop rotation

Mixed crop cultivation – growing multiple crops on the same parcel at the same time – can offer many advantages. The mixed crop technique helps to control diseases and pests, helps adapt to changing and extreme weather conditions, provides higher buffering capacity, increases diversity, and improves the soil. Agroforestry is an example of a mixed-crop system, but also complex crop mixtures based on green manures, grass-clover, and herbaceous grasslands deserve our attention. Here we discuss both systems thinking and the integration of old and new knowledge.

Development of mixed crop cultivations and expanded crop rotations is an important task for the future. Both offer opportunities to create economic added value and they will be needed to deal with the consequences of climate change. Therefore, ILVO focuses its breeding and variety testing on creating better resilience for new climate conditions. In addition, the appropriate cultivation techniques for those crops must be studied. The combination of these two knowledge areas will form the basis for a successful introduction in practice.

Healthy soil

The soil quality in and around the farm is mainly determined by the farmer’s management practices: the use of manures, soil conditioners and crop protection products, mechanization, adapted crops, and crop rotations. ILVO aims to help the farmer to manage chemical, physical, and organic soil quality. The goal: to reduce weed and disease pressure in the crops and to achieve good, high-quality yields based on customized provision of oxygen and water, a good utilization of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and good soil management and root penetration.

Fertility and soil microbiome

The soil has an important influence on the growth and health of plants. By “soil” we mean the actual soil as in arable farming as well as the substrates and mats used in horticulture. The soil determines the health of the plants on two different fronts. Harmful organisms can survive in the soil and damage the root system; while the soil also steers the plants’ properties and influences their resilience against diseases and pests, both under and above the ground. The composition of the soil and the direct environment of the roots - the rhizosphere - play an important role in both cases.

ILVO is committed to researching soil conditions and microbiology that suppress the influence of diseases and pests. The microbiome in the soil forms an important starting point in our systems research.

Manure processing and treatment

ILVO will also carry out targeted research on the treatment and processing of manure and organic waste products before they are applied in the soil. This treatment is necessary to increase the resilience and functionality of the soil, but also to limit the risk of introducing human pathogens and antibiotic residues via the fertilizer. This contamination has a huge direct effect on the soil microbiome, but also on the microbiome of the aboveground biomass. Contamination via manure can also lead to contamination of the wider environment, for example by leaching to surface and ground water.

Contact an expert

Isabel Roldán-Ruiz

Isabel Roldán-Ruiz

Scientific director, ILVO Plant Sciences department


See also

In the media 31/03/2022

The soil as key to handling climate extremes

flooded maize field
How can a farmer guard against climate change? To answer that question, Sarah Garré, researcher at ILVO, plowed through more than 100 years of agricultural research. You can read the harvest of her r...