In Chile, the agri-food sector and its producers face considerable challenges related to soil quality and improvement, in addition to environmental sustainability issues, especially given the megadrought and recurrent wildfires. Improving soil quality facilitates water infiltration and use, initiating valuable processes for the production chain.

During the 17th International Symposium on Soil and Plant Analysis (ISSPA), hosted by Chile last March, we talked to PhD Rodrigo Ortega, professor at the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María and director of the Soil, Plant, Water, and Environment Research Group. We asked him how the Chilean agri-food sector must address sustainability-related challenges in the context of climate change.

ISSPA, organized by the Soil and Plant Analysis Council, was held in the city of Concepción and co-organized by Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María. The symposium brings together scientists and professionals from all over the world to discuss scientific and technological progress in soil and plant analysis. The latest event included both remote sessions and site visits to learn about the different soils in Chile.

It should be noted that the agri-food sector and producers face considerable challenges related to soil quality and improvement, in addition to environmental sustainability issues, especially given the megadrought and recurrent wildfires. Improving soil quality helps improve infiltration, use of water, and obtain stress-resistant crops.

During the interview, PhD Rodrigo Ortega explained: “Chile is one of the countries most affected by climate change; some of the clearest manifestations are higher temperatures (UV radiation) and changes in precipitation patterns (both in quantity and intensity). Given this scenario, the most important adaptation measure is improving soil quality. Quality soil does not only allow for better water infiltration but also its effective use, thanks to crops with better roots and higher tolerance to biotic and abiotic stress. Soil improvement should begin with an accurate analysis, ideally soil mapping and the application of organic amendments and matter from high quality materials, properly characterized.”

The experts added that good quality soil allows for better more sustainable yields, since properly working soil provides more nutrients and produces healthier crops, reducing the need for external inputs. “The opportunities for the agri-food sector are many, such as creating a market for soil carbon sequestration, new organic fertilizers and amendments, as well as project assessment and product application services to improve the quality of the crops, among others,” Ortega explained.

Based on the theme of ISSPA 2023: “analytics for a sustainable agriculture under climate change,” PhD Ortega talked about the new practices and technologies that stood out. He said analytics play a key role in soil improvement, to assess and quantify changes, and serve as a base to develop the carbon market. “Additionally, comprehensive knowledge of soil quality indicators allows for better management and avoid further deterioration by designing and applying more sustainable practices. New methodologies for soil quality assessment and quality control at the laboratory were also discussed at ISSPA 2023, both for new and existing methods,” Ortega explained.

His recommendation: “To move forward with decarbonization in Chile, I would suggest including this issue on the country’s agenda, strengthening training and awareness among the various stakeholders involved. Secondly, I would suggest modifying existing degraded soil recovery programs for them to work properly. For example, organic matter applications should not be subsidized unless there is erosion control. Thirdly, I would suggest creating public-private partnerships to develop organic products adequate for carbon sequestration, following the circular economy approach, and to implement practices that help increase said sequestration.”

The symposium was an important event for scientists, public and private laboratories, government agencies, professionals, and students. This year’s program included a series of plenary and technical sessions on topics such as soil health and quality, soil fertility and plant nutrition, bioproducts, site-specific management, climate change and environmental footprint, and soil degradation. The program also included technical visits to a vineyard in Portezuelo (Ñuble Region), the Microbial Genetic Resource Bank of the Agricultural Research Institute (INIA), and to Agrícola Las Acacias, a producer of hazelnuts, cherries, and blueberries, among others.