Soil and Soil Organic Carbon within an Ecosystem Service Approach Linking Biophysical and Economic Data

The ecosystem service approach has attracted considerable interest from scientists and
policy makers alike. In soil science, the use of an ecosystem service approach has been
developed in parallel with the soil function concept, which has found its way into EU policy
developments such as the proposed EU Soil Framework Directive. There is thus a need to
clearly align both approaches from a conceptual perspective. In the first part of this report,
we have made some concrete suggestion how this can be achieved. As a key message, soil
functions should be viewed as (bundles of) soil processes that are providing input into the
delivery of (valued) final ecosystem services. In this respect, they overlap with
intermediate services in more recent ecosystem service categorisations.

The distinction between intermediate and final ecosystem services is important, if an
ecosystem service approach is intended to serve as a basis for the economic assessment of
changes in service delivery due to land use or land management changes. Ecosystem
service (and associated goods/benefits) provision is underpinned by complex interactions
of multiple processes, both soil and non‐soil related. It is important to understand the
underlying biophysical complexity of service delivery in order to establish a sound
scientific underpinning for valuation; and in order to identify the range of trade‐offs and
synergies associated with the ecosystem response to alternative land management.
However, approaches aimed at capturing complexity in service delivery ultimately require
that some aspects of the system are simplified in order to capture interactions of interest.

The identification of intermediate service outcomes related to soil that are relevant to final
service provision is particularly useful to help identify future research needs in order to
quantify and understand crucial links between ‘what soil does and provides’ and the
associated final ecosystem services. The SmartSOIL project aims to investigate the impacts
of SOC and soil management on the productive capacity of land, either improving the
growth conditions of crops and therefore yields, or by increasing fertiliser use efficiency,
related to a reduced level of fertiliser input required for optimal plant growth. Measuring
SOC content and monitoring greenhouse gas fluxes associated with alternative soil
management regimes will ultimately contribute to a better understanding of the role of SOC
in the provisioning of other important ecosystem services. The case study approach taken
in this report to localise SOC within an ecosystem service approach may be used as a
template to define other ecosystem service impacts of SOC management practices and – at
least qualitatively – assess associated trade‐offs and synergies in intermediate and final service provision.

It is important to understand the economic implications of changes in soil management:
monetary valuation is concerned with changes in ecosystem service flows that are related
to changes in stocks or natural capital. While values of changes in flows provide input into
cost‐benefit assessments of, for example, policy interventions aimed at increasing SOC
levels, they do on their own not provide the information required to assess the
sustainability of such interventions and management changes. The latter requires
information on stocks of ‘soil assets’ and the degree of substitutability of natural and manmade
elements of stocks to optimise service flows over time.

Read the full report here