Unearthing and protecting soil functions

14/Jun/2013

© Nils Nova

Residential and infrastructure construction projects are expanding at the expense of land under cultivation. Beneath the surface, the ecosystem soil performs important services: It gives nutrients to plants, and provides clean drinking water. The new National Research Programme “Sustainable use of soil as a resource” (NRP 68) aims to uncover these functions, heightening awareness of the finite resource beneath our feet.

​The debate about the growing housing requirement and the resulting increase in urban development is lacking a dimension: all of the arguments are literally superficial, focusing not on volume but on the surface area, which is increasingly scarce, especially in the Swiss central plateau (Mittelland). In contrast, the National Research Programme “Sustainable Use of soil as a Resource” (NRP 68), which was launched this year, is going underground to improve understanding and appreciation of the soil ecosystem in a three-dimensional context. “The methods and concepts that are being developed in NRP 68 should ensure that greater attention is paid to soil functions, thus improving the sustainable management of soil as a resource,” says Josef Zeyer, Professor of Environmental Microbiology at ETH Zurich and President of the Steering Committee of the new research programme.

The unknown living environment under the ground

The objective of NRP 68 is to increase the knowledge about life below the surface, so that, in the future, greater attention can be given to the soil when planning new construction zones, for example. An abundance of bacteria, fungi and nematodes exists underground. While these organisms are often invisible to the naked eye, they break down organic residues, providing plants with nutrients. They also stabilise the structure of the soil and remove impurities from groundwater. Can agriculture improve the use it makes of this environment? What effects will the anticipated climatic changes have on the soil’s role as a carbon store in the future? And can the purchase or lease of land in Africa by Swiss enterprises to produce food using industrial agricultural methods be justified?

Nineteen research projects are studying questions ranging from investigations into the increase of pollutants in cultivated soils in Switzerland to assessments of the political and social economic factors that contribute to our unrestrained consumption of the ground and to urbanisation. The NRP 68 programme will have access to CHF 13 million over the next five years in order to achieve its objectives.