Soil is life and we must protect its health, Hutton scientists say

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“It is fundamental and vital that soil health is appropriately funded and supported if we are to tackle the global challenges that our planet faces.”

“Soil is life. We breathe the air, we drink the water and we eat the crops, we live on the soil. Soil stores twice as much carbon globally as the vegetation above ground and is a universe of microbial life working with plants to balance the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen levels in the air. It is fundamental and vital that soil health is appropriately funded and supported if we are to tackle the global challenges that our planet faces.”

That is the message of soil scientists at the James Hutton Institute in response to a recent publication by the Sustainable Soils Alliance. A Freedom of Information request revealed England spent £283,780 on monitoring soils, where £60.5m was spent on water, and £7.65m on air quality monitoring in 2017-2018.

Dr Ken Loades, a research leader within the Institute’s Ecological Sciences department and Soils and Crops sector lead for the SEFARI Gateway, said soils are fundamental to our food security. “Without healthy soils, there is no food. Around the world, 11% of the total land area is used to grow edible crops. Around three times as much is grassland, supporting herbivores – including cows, sheep and other animals.

“At the James Hutton Institute, soil scientists look at ways in which soil could store more carbon, to slow down climate change and to improve the soil’s ability to carry out a host of functions. We also investigate how to slow down water in the landscape, to store it in the soil for longer. This will improve water supplies in parts of the world with long dry seasons and will reduce the risks of floods during wet seasons.”

Dr Roy Neilson, Hutton soil ecologist and a member of the UK Soil Health Group, added: “Soil is complex with a need to understand many aspects from how we manage it to the relationships with plants and their root systems. Hutton researchers work on crops, including plant breeding for different qualities like disease resistance and drought tolerance, but also on the effects of the soil on these qualities.

“How does a farmer maintain soil nitrogen levels to maintain yields, without spending too much on carbon-intensive inorganic fertiliser and polluting waterways? What can we do to reduce soil erosion, flooding and crop loss by changing how those crops are planted? Which soil microbes increase nutrient availability to crop roots, improving their growth? What is the role of soil life, such as those living around roots, which can influence greenhouse gas emissions? Discussion on the monitoring of soil health has increased significantly however very little is being actively done.”

The James Hutton Institute has been aware of the need for monitoring soils for many years. SoilBio, funded by Innovate UK, was one such project that targeted a single test, in tandem with the latest remote sensing technologies, to produce multiple measures of soil health including organisms living in the soil.

The Institute has recently been commissioned by ClimateXChange to provide an overview of how Scotland is positioned to measure the vulnerability of Scottish soils in the context of a changing climate and, post-Brexit, changing agricultural policy context. All these questions and more need answers to increase our food security, protect the environment, reduce excessive use of fertilisers, and help drive our economy – for which adequate funding is essential.

Multifunctionality is an important concept in soil and features prominently in research at the James Hutton Institute. Different components of the soil interact, each doing something different and contributing to the whole. Synergies are developed, with unexpected results. It is important to make use of these interactions and their potent effects, to understand them and enable them.

For many years the institute has produced Land Capability for Agriculture maps, a key tool for land managers across Scotland. They have also created the Centre for Sustainable Crops, based at the Institute’s Balruddery farm near Dundee and are using their Glensaugh Research farm to promote the concept of climate-positive farming.

“The environment is changing. We understand the role of soil in the wider landscape and its potential to reduce the impact of extreme weather events. We know what a good soil is and also a bad soil. However, without knowing how it is changing we can’t reward those who are conscientious custodians of one of our most vital public goods,” Dr Loades said.

“Let’s take a moment to think of our soils and how important they are. Look at your clothes, your food and the place that you live, and try to see how much of that would be impossible without soil,” Dr Neilson added.

 

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