Soil health plays key role in long-term agricultural profitability

Posted on 31/01/2017

The management of soil health has long been recognised as an important challenge in the agricultural sector.

There is now an urgent need to improve soil health across a range of agricultural systems including arable rotations, grassland systems, and perennials, if we are to ensure a sustainable and secure food supply for the world’s increasing population.

There has been a recent surge in both national and international efforts to better understand and manage soil health. In its position paper on Agriculture and Soil Biodiversity the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has urged the agricultural sector to place more emphasis on improving soil biodiversity, and has promoted sustainable soils management and agro-ecological farming.

Soil structure and nutrients need to be managed as efficiently as possible

The UK has been at the forefront of efforts to increase our knowledge of soil health, and the development of tools and policies to help to manage this key resource.

In 2015, DEFRA launched a Soil Evidence Review that identified key research priorities for developing a better understanding of soil functions. The UK Parliament launched a Soil Health Inquiry in 2015, which found that some of the most productive agricultural land in England is at risk of becoming unprofitable within a generation through soil erosion and loss of carbon. The inquiry warned that the natural environment will be seriously harmed if preventative measures are not put in place, and called for more action.

The UK’s Research Councils, with contributions from DEFRA and the Scottish Government, are funding the Soil Security Programme which aims to improve our understanding of soil functions, and how soil reacts to climate change. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), which is levy funded by farmers, growers and others in the supply chain, has provided funding for a number of research initiatives aimed at developing practical tools for farmers.

Whilst it is encouraging that our knowledge of soils is increasing and new tools are being developed, there is still an urgent need to integrate these into conventional agricultural practices, and make it easier for farmers to take the decisions that will support and improve soil health.

A number of approaches could be deployed, such as the integration of key soil health metrics in new farm management and decision support systems, and the use of cover crops, crop rotation, and soil amendment products to improve soil biodiversity and structure. Better farm management will also play a key role in the reduction of soil compaction.

In order to facilitate discussions of these approaches and share best practice, KTN, in partnership with the Plant Production and Protection (P3) Centre, University of Sheffield, are organising a workshop on “Managing and Improving Soil Health” on 14th March 2017 in Sheffield.

The event will bring together academic organisations, businesses and farmers to share academic knowledge on soil biology and key soil health metrics which have been validated in the field; gain insights from agri-businesses using novel techniques and practices; and discuss opportunities for new products and services.

If your organisation has developed innovative products, technologies or tools that can help the agricultural sector to manage and improve soil health, please email us at agrifood@ktn-uk.org. There are still a few spaces available for pitch presentations and success stories.

In addition to the workshop, KTN can help facilitate collaborative projects to develop new products and services that will help the agricultural sector to remain profitable and sustainable.

By Dr Liliya Serazetdinova, Knowledge Transfer Manager, Agri-Food

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