JRC Project Descriptions

Anna Muntwyler, ETH Zurich

Modelling phosphorus cycle in EU agricultural soils and assessing land impact and land mitigation options

PI: Prof. Stefanie Hellweg and Dr. Stephan Pfister, ETH Zurich, Inst. of Environmental
Engineering (IfU), Ecological Systems Design
Dr. Panos Panagos and Dr. Emanuele Lugato, D3 - Land Resources, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Ispra, Italy
Dr. Adrian Müller, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL

 

Agriculture currently feeds 7.7 billion people globally and will have to feed ~10 billion in 30 years. Concomitantly, food production is causing various negative impact on the environment, including a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, three-quarters of the global ocean and freshwater eutrophication and it is threatening half of the endangered species. In order to mitigate these problems, we need to know how to produce enough food to feed the world while causing less impact on the environment. The environmental impact of single food items can be assessed in a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) that considers all product life stages, from the moment it is produced to its going to waste.

This research project aims at identifying the most sustainable agricultural practices considering their environmental impacts with a focus on nutrient management. The LCA of agricultural management will be enhanced by using a spatially explicit crop and ecosystem model together with an erosion model. Subsequent integration with a mass-flow model capturing the global food system will help to analyze the effects, benefits and trade-offs of different nutrient managements and production systems for providing adequate food for the global population. Assessing the environmental impacts of different agricultural management systems with improved nutrient cycle modelling will allow to identify environmental hotspots of impacts as well as regions, where a transition to organic production would be favorable from a life cycle perspective.

The outcome will consist of scientific publications as well as a vehicle to assess policy goals in agriculture, such as the Green Deal of the European Commission. Therefore, research results will contribute to responsible decisions making with regard to agricultural land use.

Clara Antonia Klöcker, ETH Zurich

How biodiversity can recover in the light of past and present human pressures

PIs: Prof. Stefanie Hellweg and Dr. Stephan Pfister, Inst. of Environmental Engineering (IlfU), Ecological Systems Design, ETH Zurich

Prof. Loïc Pellissier, Landscape Ecology at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecosystems, ETH Zurich
Dr. Serenella Sala, Scientific officer, Bioeconomy unit of the Directorate D - Sustainable Resources, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Ispra, Italy

 

Biodiversity and particularly its loss, have gained increasing attention, not only in scientific circles, but also in the public and policy domain such as under the slogan of the «sixth mass extinction». Similar to the topic of climate change, science offers strong evidence that human-introduced pressures, such as increased land use and pollution have a negative impact on the natural environment including biological diversity. Yet, unlike climate change impacts that can be measured relatively easily as CO 2-equivalents as a unit, quantifying the human impact on biodiversity has proven very difficult. The concept of biodiversity is very complex and incorporates different aspects and levels, ranging from genes over species up to entire ecosystems, making it difficult to find one single denominator.

Having been fascinated by the many different life forms and the complex dynamics that have evolved to maintain a balance in the system even when experiencing disturbances, I started my PhD to investigate these dynamics. In order to contribute to a better under-standing of temporal trends and spatial patterns of biodiversity recovery following human-induced disturbances, I will use computer-based methods and combine global pressure maps from satellite images with species information from available databases. Given the need to be able to measure and compare the impacts that human action has on biodiversity, I aim to improve current approaches of quantifying biodiversity impacts in the context of Life Cycle Impact Assessments with my results. Bringing different data and scientific approaches together, my project aims to bridge the gap between scientific disciplines as well as between science and policymakers, who in the end have to make the decisions on how our society and environment will look in the future to come.

Caspar Roebroek, ETH Zurich

Constraining historical and future estimates of land cover and
land management effects on climate

PIs: Prof. Sonia Seneviratne and Dr. Edouard Davin, Institute for Atmospheric
and Climate Science (IAC), ETH Zurich
Dr. Alessandro Cescatti and Gregory Duveiller, Senior researchers, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Ispra, Italy


The Institute for Environment and Sustainability (IES) is one of the seven institutes
of the JRC (European Commission). The mission of IES is to provide scientific and
technical support to EU strategies for the protection of the environment and sustai-
nable development.

 

Land-based carbon storage, combining vegetation and soils, contains more than double the amount of carbon than currently present in the atmosphere. Especially forests are known for their potential of assimilation of CO2, hence mitigating a significant part of human green-house gas emissions. Concurrently, forests play a major role in shaping their own environment by changing the local energy and water cycle. Combining these processes are fundamental to under- stand forest growth dynamics for the purpose of modelling future climate (local and global), since they contribute a potentially valuable tool for climate change mitigation strategies.

Although forest dynamics at a local scale are well known and studied for centuries, the global distribution and future trajectories of forest growth and stability remain relatively uncertain. This project aims to take advantage of new global remote sensing technologies to obtain a better understanding of the global constraints of forest carbon assimilation. It will consist of disentangling the net effect of the various drivers of growth (climate, water availability, soil characteristics etc.) and studying the occurrences of both natural and human-caused disturbances on forests. Together, they will be used to create a framework for comparing and assessing forest management strategies that stimulate forest growth and limit forest losses to disturbances. The project will be executed partly at ETH Zurich (in the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Sciences) and partly at the JRC in Ispra, Italy, taking advantage of the respective expertise in global climate modelling and remote sensing analysis.

Maëva Labouyrie, University of Zurich

Soil microbial biodiversity and ecosystem functioning across
Europe

PIs: Prof. Dr. Marcel van der Heijden, Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of Zurich & Plant-Soil Interactions Agroscope Reckenholz, Zurich
Dr. Alberto Orgiazzi, Project officer, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Ispra, Italy

Other project team members:
Dr. Ferran Romero, Postdoctoral researcher, Plant-Soil Interactions group at Agroscope Reckenholz, Zürich
Dr. Arwyn Jones, Scientific officer, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Ispra, Italy
Dr. Panos Panagos, Scientific officer, European Commission, Joint Research
Centre Ispra, Italy
Prof. Dr. Leho Tedersoo, Professor in Mycorrhizal Studies, University of Tartu, Institute of Ecology and Earth Science, Estonia

 

To sustain an ever-increasing population, the total area of cultivated land globally has increased considerably in recent decades, accompanied by an expanding use of fertilizers and pesticides. It is still poorly understood whether this land use intensification influences soil biodiversity.

In 2009, the European Commission launched a large-scale soil monitoring program, called LUCAS Soil with the aim of assessing the impact of land use on soil quality. The resulting database includes sampling sites distributed across Europe (from the North of Sweden to the South of Spain and from Ireland to Romania) that are visited every 3 years. In 2018, soil biodiversity was added to the survey and a total of 885 sites were sampled.

This large project focuses on the effects of land use on soil microbial diversity. Specifically we will (i) identify factors that regulate soil microorganisms and microbial networks across a gradient of land use practices and soil properties in Europe, (ii) determine key taxa within the soil microbiome, by selecting indicator taxa for specific ecosystem functions and testing whether key taxa are influenced by pesticides in the soil, and (iii) investigate whether soil biodiversity, microbiome complexity and the diversity and composition of functional soil genes are influenced by pesticide concentrations in the soil. The main hypotheses are that the intensification of agricultural practices will involve changes in the composition of soil microbial communities, affecting also the connectivity and complexity of co-occurrence networks. Specifically, we hypothesize that the use of pesticides will reduce the presence of sensitive key and non-key soil taxa, affecting the functions associated to these taxa, too. We expect a selection of pesticide-tolerant taxa under high agricultural pressure.

Three main land covers will be studied: woodland, grassland and cropland, representing a gradient of intensification in management practices. A study of the diversity within (alpha) and between (beta) communities will be conducted, as well as a co-occurrence network analysis across land-use types. Furthermore, the relative contribution of several soil physical and chemical properties in shaping microbial communities and networks will be evaluated.

Currently, most microbiologists characterize microbial taxa as operational taxonomic units (OTU), generated by grouping sequences based on a shared similarity threshold (97% of similarity in general). However, more recently, researchers also use amplicon sequence variants (ASV), based on sequence differences by as little as a single nucleotide change, avoiding similarity-based operational clustering units. Previous calculations and models will be carried out using both approaches for comparison.