FAO Liaison Office with the Russian Federation

Professor Vasenev: we can still manage soil fertility


World Soil Day is held annually on 5 December to highlight the importance of soils and promote the sustainable use of soil resources. World Soil Day 2022 and its campaign “Soils: Where Food Begins” aims to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems and human well-being by addressing growing challenges in soil management, raising soil awareness and encouraging societies to improve soil health.

On the occasion of the World Soil Day, professor Ivan Vasenev, PhD in Biology, Head of the Department of Ecology at the Russian State Agrarian University – MTAA named after K.A. Timiryazev, answers questions from the FAO Moscow Office.

How realistic is effective “soil management” today? Has humanity passed the bifurcation point and is large-scale soil cover restoration no longer possible?

Professor Vasenev: Today, we can still really “manage fertility” and “correct” the regulatory ecological and agroecological functions of most agricultural and forest soils used in practice.

This is in fact possible only within certain controlled changes that nature provides us in the bioclimatic conditions of a particular region, the geomorphological conditions of a particular landscape (agricultural landscape), the morphogenetic and lithological profile of a particular soil variability upon the seasonal dynamics of the weather conditions of the current year. And, of course, within our real opportunity to use the best available technologies for farming and land use here and now.

But to do so, first of all, we must:

  • fully understand the regional-typological and local agroecological (functional-ecological) features of the soil of a particular land;
  • be able to identify and quantify the limiting factors and parameters of their agroecological quality and ecological state at minimal cost;
  • figure out "road maps" and the most rational indicators of their consistent improvement from a normative point of view;
  • select the best available technologies;
  • provide convincing environmental and economic justifications for their application.

Successfully solving this complex and multifaceted task separately for each land plot would be very costly, therefore, for this purpose, automated soil (land) assessment systems and decision support systems for agroecological optimization of farming and land use are created, consistently verified and localized.

As we know, about half of the deserts that exist today are anthropogenic. They are the result of far-reaching degradation of the soil cover. It would not be serious to talk about the real possibility of a full-scale restoration of their original soil cover now, even if there are well-known local examples of remarkable restoration of highly degraded and deserted lands.

Today, the priority task is to preserve and rationally use what we have as much as possible - with sustainable and cost-effective yields secured from an agroclimatic and breeding-and-genetic point of view while maintaining the ecological functions of soils and developing their ecosystem services.

Loss of soil nutrients is one of the main soil degradation processes that threaten nutrition and is recognized by FAO as one of the most important global issues for food security. Is there an understanding of the scale and severity of the problem among Russian scientists and experts, as well as among decision-makers (DM)?

Professor Vasenev: The issue of uncompensated loss of soil macro- and micronutrients is actively discussed and, in general, deeply understood by Russian experts specialized in plant nutrition, agrochemistry, soil science, agroecology, agriculture, crop and fertilizer production.

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of fertilizer application leaves room for improvement. If in our best farms their payback can be close to the world's highest payback rates for mineral fertilizers, then in general, it legs behind them by 1.5-2 times in most regions.

Along with objective reasons, the relatively low and unstable payback of fertilizer use is affected by a large regional diversity of the country’s soil cover, an increased inter-field diversity of soil fertility of large lands, a growing uncertainty in forecasting yields and seasonal dynamics of weather conditions as a result of global climate change.

The backlog of Russia in the development of modern systems of agroecological monitoring and modeling of the production process is no less significant. However, this is the basis of a rapidly updated knowledge base of regionally adapted decision support systems for agroecological optimization of designed farming systems and operational adjustment of flexible elements of agricultural technologies.

Without their active development and implementation in day-to-day work by both large companies and innovation-oriented farmers, it is impossible for responsible persons, who make management, planning and technological decisions in practical farming and crop production, to achieve a full and functional understanding of future-oriented tasks of agroecological plant nutrition optimization.

How does the Timiryazev Academy team contribute to solving this hot-button issue?

Professor Vasenev: The World-Class Scientific Center "Agrotechnologies of the future”, established in 2020 at the Timiryazev Academy, contributes to the active integration of the country's leading specialists in soil science, agroecology, agriculture, plant nutrition, agrochemistry, crop and fertilizer production in solving this hot-button issue.

Annually, self-learning intelligent decision support systems (DSS) for agroecological optimization of adaptive farming systems and regionally distributed agroecological IoT (Internet of Things) monitoring systems, which are gradually developed at the University, go through verification tests at representative test sections of the Field Experimental Station of the University, the Federal Agrarian Research Center of the South-East, Samara Research Agriculture Institute named after N .M. Tulaykov (Samara Federal Scientific Center) and the Federal Scientific Center for Biological Systems and Agrotechnologies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

How is the cooperation between the Timiryazev Academy and FAO developing? What has already been done and what should be improved in the future?

Professor Vasenev: The actively developing cooperation between the Timiryazev Academy, the FAO Liaison Office with the Russian Federation, the FAO Global Soil Partnership, and the FAO Eurasian Soil Partnership has a rich history, good practical results, and prospects for further development.

In the last five years, we have carried out a joint project for the modernization of the V.R. Williams’ Soil and Agronomic Museum with the digitization of the richest collection of soil monoliths, hold the first broad celebration of the World Soil Day in Russia, annual round tables and webinar forums on the broadest range of the most pressing food and environmental security issues of our time.

We are grateful to the friendly team of the FAO Liaison Office with the Russian Federation, headed by Oleg Kobiakov, for its constant and methodological support of our scientific research and training programs, and for the vast popularization of the best practices in agroecology, soil science, and plant nutrition.

In the future, we would like to organize joint training programs for Master’s Degree and Ph.D students, as well advanced training for representatives of countries traditionally friendly to Russia in Asia, Africa, and Latin America on Agro-ecological land use management and IoT land monitoring with verification of soil and carbon saving technologies.