Soils deliver ecosystem services that are vital for human wellbeing. They enable food production, support biodiversity, manage water flow, store carbon, and provide a foundation for the living landscapes that are an important part of human cultural heritage. Maintaining healthy soils requires careful environmental stewardship. This natural resource is under increasing pressure from a range of human activities, including pollution, intensive land management, and climate change. The result is degradation of their vital ecosystem services. Together, the cost of these environmental impacts in the EU is estimated at 50 billion Euros per year.
The EU’s Healthy Soils Mission aims to “establish 100 living labs and lighthouses to lead the transition towards healthy soils by 2030”. Its 8 Mission objectives set out its ambitions to: “(1) reduce desertification (2) conserve soil organic carbon stocks (3) stop soil sealing and increase re-use of urban soils (4) reduce soil pollution and enhance restoration (5) prevent erosion (6) improve soil structure to enhance soil biodiversity (7) reduce the EU global footprint on soils (8) improve soil literacy in society”.
In support of these objectives, the Mission plans to increase understanding of soil stewardship through research into the processes that affect soil health, to support innovative approaches to increasing soil health, to create a monitoring system that allows tracking and evaluation of soil health across Europe, and to increase soil literacy and citizen engagement in this area. AI can support activities across these areas for action, for example by:
Increasing understanding of soil ecosystems
Soil has been studied for over 100 years, but while its physics and chemistry have been well-characterised, scientific understanding of its biology is still in flux. Soil biology is in the early stages of the sequencing revolution, with genetic studies offering new insights into how these complex ecosystems work, for example in terms of the relationships between soil, microbes and invertebrates, and the metabolic pathways that soils support. Marrying new sequencing data with existing understandings of soil physics and chemistry could unlock new insights into what contributes to healthy (or unhealthy) soils, and what happens when soil ecosystems are perturbed. By drawing connections between different data types – or previously unidentified links across large datasets – AI could support a systems-level understanding of soils.
Monitoring soil health
A variety of sensors and monitoring systems already collect data about indicators of soil health, including soil quality, pest prevalence, and chemical or physical characteristics. AI can enhance these monitoring efforts, helping to map soil characteristics, simulate the processes that shape ecosystem services, predict the state of soil in different areas and how this might change over time, and enable new monitoring strategies by using data from remote sensing and Earth observation.
Planning policy and land management interventions
Drawing from these increased analytical capabilities, AI could deliver insights that inform policy strategies to increase soil health and sustainability. For example, predictive models of water demand can help land managers monitor water resources and take action to prevent droughts; chemical sensors that monitor weather and soil conditions can predict soil nitrogen levels and provide advice on fertiliser use to help avoid over-fertilisation; AI-enabled image analysis can automate pest identification, supporting farmers to control their spread; and automated systems can help minimise water waste from irrigation.