The project won the 2022 Czech Technology Agency Award for the greatest social significance. Photo credit: MENDELU.

Brno, Nov 1 (BD) – Soil in drought-affected areas loses its characteristic properties—it is unable to absorb water and is depleted of nutrients and organisms needed for the successful germination of sown or planted plants. As a result, biodiversity is rapidly decreasing, and the surrounding life is slowly disappearing. To counteract this trend, scientists at Mendel University’s Faculty of Horticulture have worked to develop a technology that improves the soil’s ability to absorb water and helps seeds germinate. This will help revitalise agricultural land threatened by drought. The project was the winner of the prestigious 2022 Czech Technology Agency award in the category of the project with the greatest significance for society.

Scientists have established two basic procedures. The first was the application of adjuvants to the soil. The key substances for the scientists are hydro absorbents, i.e., substances that retain water in the soil. “For the experiments, two types of soil auxiliary substances with this property were used—natural lignite, whose resources are easy to use, and a hydro absorbent called Hydrogel,” explained Petr Salaš from the Faculty of Horticulture.

In the second phase, they used water absorbing seed process (WASP) technology, in which the hydro absorbent is part of a mixture into which the scientists, in cooperation with a German company, encased the seeds of selected clover and grasses. By encapsulating the mixture, the crop will have sufficient water at the start of germination. 

“When the coated seed is sown in the soil, rained on or watered, the hydro absorbent swells, and when the seed starts to germinate, it has an immediate source of water. The roots immediately seek out the hydro absorbent, connect to its structure, and draw water,” said Salas.

To improve degraded soils, the researchers tested different combinations of hydro absorbents and natural lignite, in both partial experiments and semi-operational trials in collaboration with a private farmer. They used South Moravian lignite, or brown coal, which is not very suitable for combustion, but is well suited for use in agriculture, as lignite also acts as a natural hydro absorbent. 

“For twenty years, we at the faculty have been devoted to the non-energy use of lignite, which until recently was mined in southern Moravia. And one of the possible uses is in agriculture as a support for the development of soil organic matter,” said Miloslav Pekař from the Faculty of Chemistry of the Brno University of Technology.

The project highlights the fact that water scarcity needs to be taken into account and certain agricultural practices need to be changed. “In recent years, we have had very intense drought in many places, and this year you will also find farms in South Moravia that have lower yields. Unfortunately, without the interventions that this project points to, we will not be able to maintain yields. The only source of water in our country is rainfall, so farmers can no longer just rely on the fact that it will rain, but must calculate that they will have water. Without water, no crops can yield,” warned climatologist Jaroslav Rožnovský from MENDELU, who specialises in drought.

The field trials were conducted over several years on grass and clover crops in four locations with different soil and climatic conditions: Hodonin, Lednice, Troubsko and Zubří. The results will be useful for farmers and anyone else who manages extensive grasslands. 

“Extensive in this case means that we do not have irrigation or we have extremely dry areas. The conditions that existed in the experimental area in Hodonín exist today, for example, in cities, where it is very difficult to maintain and manage grassland,” said Salaš.

The “Revitalisation of agricultural land in drought-prone areas of the Czech Republic” project was coordinated by the Faculty of Horticulture at MENDELU, in cooperation with the Faculty of Chemistry at Brno University of Technology and commercial partners in Zubří and Troubsko. Representatives of the team received the Czech Technology Agency award at a gala ceremony at the National Museum in Prague on 20 October.

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