Intensify production, transform biomass to energy and novel goods and protect soils in Europe (INTENSE)

Project abstract

INTENSE is responding to 3 “Great Challenges”, i.e. global food security, use of renewable raw materials and biomass production, notably for the Bioeconomy, for which the agricultural sector is pivotal. INTENSE contributes to sustainable increase in food production, novel products for agriculture and new perspectives for European rural landscapes. Future land use must embrace efficient production and use of biomass for improved economic, environmental and social outcomes. At least 30 % of the agricultural soils in Europe need to be transformed to a higher quality state. INTENSE helps to reconvert poor, abandoned and polluted sites including grassland, set aside land, brownfields, and otherwise marginal lands into sustainable agricultural production across Europe. Innovative system-based tools for the development and implementation of integrated food and non-food production serving for intensified land management of these land areas are constructed. These tools encompass researches on (a) crucial soil components and processes for recovering soils from pollution, drought or other reasons for low productivity, (b) plant species producing high biomass on marginal and/or contaminated soils, (c) the optimum composition for composting and biogas production, and (d) degradation and absorption of pollutants by selected plant species and to demonstrate their potential. Stakeholders including farms and farm-associated biogas enterprises are integrated in the project to facilitate the implementation of sustainable and financially attractive production alternatives. This holistic approach will enable the identification of common traits and the development and dissemination of production chains for sustainable intensification, adapted to the environmental and socio-economic diversity within Europe.

Fig. Biochar amendment, alone and in combination with compost, at a former wood preservation site: plant testing with Populus nigra and Arundo donax (© M. Mench)

Methods and materials

INTENSE combines cropping and soil amendment experiments, precision agricultural and crop modeling tools, experimental biomass conversion to energy, assessment of greenhouse gas and nutrient emission and other environmental indicators, as well as socioeconomic models. It includes 5 work-packages (WP)

WP1 - integrated farming on marginal soils

WP1 will raise productivity for food and non-crops on

  1. Dry (low water-holding capacity) - agricultural
  2. Low organic matter (OM) content - agricultural
  3. Contaminated - former industrial and agricultural soils

Works focus on improving soil properties notably soil OM by the use of agricultural residues, directly or through the production of soil amendments (e.g. biochar, composts, and organic granulated fertilizers). Field experiments, with maize and sunflower in the southern Europe and grasses (e.g. Dactylis glomerata, Festuca pratensis, Phleum pratense) and cereal crops (Hordeum vulgare) in the northern, are established. Agrochemical use will be minimized and irrigation will be avoided. 

Expected results of WP1

  • Increase in soil OM should improve soil reactions and nutrient supply, microbial activity and diversity and water-holding capacity
  • Recovered soils will be used to grow crops; other soils chemically contaminated by anthropogenic activities will undergo remediation by cultivating non-food crops for the energy and other sectors in line with the Bioeconomy (phytomanagement)

WP2 - Strategies to improve soil biodiversity and ecosystem services: precise management

It relates critical factors, i.e. degradation, contamination and management intensity, to changes in soil biological and functional diversity and system functionality for the WP1 remediation strategies. It uses maps, modeling tools and site-specific data, and applies the most suitable management strategies in the framework of precision/conservative agriculture; the approach is harmonized, but tailored to the local situations, including strong cooperation with stakeholders and territorial institutions. 

Expected results of WP2

  • Links between soil biological/functional diversity and the delivery of ecosystem services: carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling and water retention;
  • Adaptation and integration of modelling tools, which identify strategies for efficient biomass production on degraded land in transition
  • Strategies to deliver different sources of biomass according to inter-and intra-seasonal variation in cropping conditions

WP3 - Ecological indicators of land use changes: stresses and key factors of sustainability

Environmental indicators and societal responses provide information on pressures on the environmental conditions of the selected agroecosystems as proxies for measuring complex conditions. Information are collected on the status of field sites, soil improvement, biomass production, and ecosystem resilience and productivity as well as the feedback from stakeholders, the public and policy makers.

Expected results of WP3

  • Data on soil fertility and life, plant performance and yield, stress factors, product quality, and ecological sustainability of strategies
  • A prioritization of regions and systems for the adaptations and mitigation strategies to be applied. Sectoral policies concerning land use, nature and biodiversity conservation, water and irrigation, greenhouse gas emissions and soil quality will benefit from this prioritization scheme

WP4 - Economic valuation of biodiversity and ecosystem services: cost effective management

This WP aims to

  1. reveal the economic value of soil biodiversity for agricultural production based on the functional role of microbial communities in delivering ecosystem services (cf WP2) and
  2. perform a cost-effectiveness analysis of the management strategies accounting for the current land shortcomings (WP1) and impact on the delivery of ecosystem services (WP2), by assessing costs of these strategies and their benefits

Expected results of WP4

  • Evidences of biodiversity benefits at the farm level as farmers confronted with budget constraints need supporting arguments for deciding about biodiversity conservation.

WP5 - Implementing sustainability of marginal lands: outreach and demonstration

Results from WPs 1-4 will be gathered and implemented into an integrated management setup mirroring best practices. The plant-microorganism partnerships with best performance will be selected; soil amendments proven to yield highest stability and beneficial effects on soil ecological functions will be used, and biomass will be converted to the products yielding best revenues to the farmer. 

Expected results of WP5

  • Practical experience from and tailor made solutions for selected marginal sites, including various pollution scenarios and a climate gradient across Europe
  • A toolbox with a hierarchical set of methods to stabilize soils, improve soil life, maximize productivity, at high level of C sequestration, water retention, and nutrient cycling
  • Round-tables in 6-month intervals involving stakeholders and end-users
  • A summer school with practical implementation examples

Target groups

  • Farmers and other potential end-users of marginal soils
  • Stakeholders and end-users involved in the improvement of marginal soils, degraded soil recovery and remediation of contaminated soils, (organic) fertilizers and soil amendments (composts, biochars, etc.)
  • Stakeholders and end-users involved in the use of biomass and the Bioeconomy (e.g. energy sector, plastic and fibre sectors, biosourced (green) chemistry/biorefineries, Ecocatalysis, etc.)
  • Microenterprises, Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), Consulting companies, Large and very large companies: dealing with the management and/or restoration of degraded/contaminated sites, fertilizers and soil amendments, biomass production, use of food/non-food crops for the Bioeconomy and other activities
  • (inter) professional associations; Business associations of producers and manufacturers
  • Centres and technology parks; Institutes, laboratories and research centres; other (public) actors of innovation and technology transfer (regional innovation agencies), local management, National Park, Regional Nature Park, Airport/harbour authorities
  • Foundations university-industry / university foundations; parapublic entities within an administrative structure / public entity / public company; associations, foundations; European groupings of territorial cooperation
  • Education/academics (university and higher education, other schools): students (Masters and summer school), scientists / early- and mid-career researchers (via opinion & research papers, communications in national & international conferences)
  • Local, regional and national authorities/policy makers: General State or regional administration, free associated communities, local or regional development agencies, public bodies involved in the management of degraded and contaminated sites
  • Social media: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube channel, Instagram; web pages, national, regional or local press; mailing list


Research gaps

  • Global food security (sustainable increase in food crops), use of renewable raw materials (novel products for agriculture; greenhouse gas mitigation and C sequestration) and biomass production (non-food crops) for the Bioeconomy
  • (eco-friendly) recovery /remediation of ecological functions of degraded /contaminated soils; future land use of marginal land; plant-microorganism partnerships; innovative system-based tools (precision farming, crop modeling, environmental indicators) for developing/implementing integrated food and non-food production; soil ecological functions in line with ecosystem services and climate change; integration of natural and social sciences and cost-effectiveness analysis of the management strategies
  • optimum biomass composition for composting and biogas production
Fig. Field trial of Miscanthus x giganteus at an agricultural contaminated site, Evin-Malmaison, France (© F. Nsanganwimana/ F. Douay)


Dr. Arne Sæbø
NIBIO (Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research), Norway

Project partners

Helmholtz Zentrum Muenchen GmbH, Germany  

Warsaw University of Life Sciences, Poland

INRA (National Institute of Agronomic Research), France   

Hasselt University, Belgium - Flanders   

CIEMAT, Spain   

Martlhof am Tegernsee, Germany   

Universita' degli Studi di Parma, Italy