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The Future for UK Soil Science

Cultivation practices designed to preserve soil quality and environmental resources
Cultivation practices designed to preserve soil quality and environmental resources

Farmers hold the key to the UK fulfilling one of its primary climate change commitments, with the immense capacity for soils to capture carbon through raising organic matter content, according to eminent UK soil scientist, Professor Wilfred Otten of Cranfield Soil & Agri Institute.

Presenting the second thought-provoking Farmers Weekly Arable Horizons lecture – addressing some key aspects of science that will influence the future of UK farming – he highlighted today’s immensely complex demands on soil, which go far beyond its capability just to grow food. Water supply and flood mitigation; supporting biodiversity and nutrient cycling, for example, all had to be considered.

Wilfred Otten

“For every action, there is a reaction and potential effect on another part of the matrix of demands on soils and land. Farmers need to be increasingly aware of their actions, but we also need to be able to provide the science to understand, predict outcomes and enable solutions to build more resilient soils,” he told the invited audience of farmers, agronomists and academics.

“Future farming will offer solutions to Grand Challenges beyond sustainable yield, including climate change and water storage,” said Professor Otten.

But on the question of whether farmers should be financially compensated for providing these service to society, Prof. Otten remains sceptical. He argued that the bigger gain for farmers will be from higher yields generated by improved soil fertility, structure and microbial health associated with increased organic matter content.


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Assessing the potential of some 27 existing soil management solutions to enhance soil health, Prof. Otten, reported rigorous evaluation by leading academics only considered green cover crops, crop rotation and soil organic matter nutrient amelioration could be confidently stated to give unequivocal benefits to soils and farming systems – which farmers should be urged to pursue now.

Are the scientists right? Give your opinions the same 27 soil management initiatives and how you think they will impact on soil health and farming productivity

Other soil management initiatives, such as controlled traffic systems, companion cropping and reduced grazing all appeared to offer significant potential enhancements, but there was, as yet, insufficient robust scientific evidence to qualify or quantify the benefits, which makes decision making imprecise.

In a Question Time session with Karl Scneider, editor of Farmers Weekly (below), and the invited audience, he added: “One of the imminent questions for policymakers and farmers is whether we focus on developing the few areas that we know could make marginal gains for soil improvements, or whether we look for more radical solutions that could make a step change.”

Wilfred Otten + Karl Schneider

However, all the review of academia had concluded that the one aspect of agronomy that would be universally detrimental to soils and farming systems, would be the reduction in pesticide and fertiliser application, which was concluded would lead to faster degradation of soils in the pursuit of profitable food production.

Furthermore, Prof. Otten presented a compelling argument that, whilst the effects of soil degradation was being seen and experienced on a field scale, the key solutions would come from the understanding of soil science at a microscopic level. Not just the soil particles themselves, but also the gaps between them where the action happens, and the interaction with plant roots that influence the biodynamics within the soil.       

With the immense scale and investment in soil research and science currently being undertaken, Prof. Otten warned of the danger of being overwhelmed with results and data, without being able to implement in practice.

His vision, is for a workable model with a vast resource of background data accumulated from all the studies in which, rather like an interactive video game, whole scenarios could be played out and the real in-field effects to be foreseen.

“Some of the targets being set, such as the carbon sequestration to meet the 4 per mille initiative, are actually relatively modest and entirely achievable.

“Designing soils will be a new focus for soil and plant science, routed in predictive understanding of multiscale processes and driven by innovative tools," he added.

“Our challenge is to bring these technologies out of the lab and identify which changes at a microscopic level, impact on yield.”

Syngenta solutions

Robin Oliver of Syngenta also highlighted the dependence on the application of robust science at a field and wider landscape scale to develop the sustainable farming systems vital to feed the world’s growing population. Resource protection and the enhancement of soils were a core element of Syngenta’s commitment to the company’s Good Growth Plan, he added.

Dr Robin Oliver

Dr Oliver (above) reported that, working with partners in academia, practical research and on-farm application, Syngenta was engaging with soil science science for sustainability, the design of safe and effective crop protection products and yield optimisation at multiple levels:

  • Soil microbiology
  • 3-D imaging in real time
  • Integrated pest, root and chemical monitoring
  • Field-scale evaluation of agronomic practices on biodiversity and soil conservation
  • Landscape scale implementation of projects for conservation tillage and Operation Pollinator initiatives for biodiversity enhancement, soil conservation and water resource protection

He demonstrated results of in-field research, using combinations of conservation tillage and cover crops, that had dramatically reduced incidence of soil loss and eliminated issues of water contamination from both soil and residue movement in water.

Furthermore, with experience and the development of appropriate agronomic techniques, the dip in yields that had often been associated with adopting new technologies could be minimised, and see a faster recovery to higher yields and greater overall productivity by reducing costs.

He also highlighted the opportunity that these advances in soil science bring for designing the next generation of crop protection products that will be optimised for both efficacy and safety.

“For the future of sustainability, we are looking at the integration of stakeholders to deliver practical value adding solutions to growers,” said Robin Oliver.

“To make translation across scales a reality, by unlocking the potential of rhizosphere, soil structure and microbiology to optimise yield, enhance biodiversity and reduce vulnerability.”


Arable Horizons - Soils