Organic matter for soil fertility and functionality

Organic matter plays a central role in maintaining the functionality and productivity of soil. It helps to prevent soil erosion and floods, and can also play a part in mitigating climate change. The gradual decline of organic matter in soil across many parts of Europe is therefore one of our greatest environmental threats, particularly in peatlands. Globally, 30% of all soil carbon is fixed in peatlands. That’s double the carbon contained in the biomass of all the forests in the world.

In spite of the importance of peatlands, around 15% of these landscapes around the world have been drained for agriculture, burning and fuel. When peatlands are drained or burned for agriculture, the carbon that has been sequestered over the centuries is released into the atmosphere. The peatland then becomes a source rather than a sink in the carbon system. The amount of CO2 released annually as a result of the draining and burning of peatlands is equivalent to 10% of the total annual CO2 emissions attributable to fossil fuels.

The maintenance and sustainable use of peatlands is therefore a priority as part of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. Peatlands are not just a natural carbon sink: they also provide many other ecosystem services. For example, they help to filter and store water, prevent floods and maintain biodiversity.

Maintaining and improving the resilience and functionality of these soils is therefore a fundamental part of sustainable land management.

Research focus

The associate applied research group in Organic matter for soil fertility and functionality focuses on alternative climate-proof land management strategies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving the functionality and resilience of agricultural soils, particularly peatlands.

Its core activities are:

  1. Testing different management strategies for limiting soil damage (specifically soil erosion and the loss of organic matter);
  2. Quantifying the effect of sustainable land management on the mitigation of climate change;
  3. Researching the link between soil and water management and quality;
  4. Researching how the biodiversity and functionality of soil can be maintained and improved through climate-proof practices.

About the associate professor

Valentina Sechi’s fascination with the complex dynamics between living organisms and the environment led her to study Ecology and Evolution at the University of Rome. After completing her Master's in 2009, she embarked on a Master's specialisation in Environmental Evaluation and Planning at the Polytechnic University of Turin. She then spent a year working as an environmental consultant before returning to academic research.

From 2010 to 2012 she worked at the University of Aarhus. She started as a research assistant in the Department of Soil Ecology, researching the effects of crop protection agents on the soil ecosystem. She then worked as a visiting researcher in the Department of Biosciences and Agroecology, researching the identification of trophic relationships of mesofauna in pasture soils. These research activities paved the way for her doctoral research into trophic relationships in soil, which she carried out at the Department of Soil Quality at Wageningen University and at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), which also funded her doctoral research. She defended her thesis in June 2017.

Valentina is now an associate professor in Organic matter for soil fertility and functionality at Van Hall Larenstein, where she coordinates and conducts research as part of the EU interreg project Carbon Connects (Cconnects), which is using a field lab setting to investigate how to improve the sustainability of agriculture on the wet fields of drained peatlands. The research carried out by this associate applied research group is part of Emiel Elferink’s group on Sustainable Soil Management. Valentina Sechi also works as the scientific coordinator of the Soil theme at Wetsus (the European centre of excellence for sustainable water technology).

Further information

For more information on the applied research group and its projects, please contact Valentina Sechi at valentina.sechi@hvhl.nl.