‘Are we looking after our soils?’
Chris presents to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee
As soon as you enter the House of Commons you get a buzz. There are lots of people engaged in conversation and the sense of being at the centre of government is palpable. The further you enter into the myriad of rooms you can understand the huge expense that will be involved in any refurbishment.
We are in committee room 19, but there are many other meetings indicated on the display boards and you realise the difficulty any campaign will have making an impact. The presentations go down really well; I focus on the biological variability of soils and the problems of establishing robust soil health indicators as well as introducing the Soil Security Programme. Jack Hennan from Cranfield University describes the physical variability of soils and the limitations of national monitoring. The final speaker is Helen Browning from the Soil Association who presents seven ways we can improve soils.
After drinks about twenty of us have a sit down dinner and Stephen Metcalfe MP the Chairman of the Parliamentary and Science Committee opens the debate ‘Are we looking after our soil’. After 30 minutes of vigorous conversation where a number of soil threats are highlighted (e.g. growing unsuitable crops such as maize, the problems of sustainable management associated with short term tenancies), we search for a single action to recommend. A commitment to increase organic matter in arable fields by 20% is proposed by Helen Browning. While we can all see pitfalls in this we recognise it as a clear ambition that will have a beneficial outcome.
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Professor Chris Collins and Dr Tom Sizmur gave presentations to a workshop on Soil Health and Management at Imperial College. The event marked the launch of the Inaugural Sainsbury’s Farming Scholars programme.
The Farming Scholars are representatives of growers that supply Sainsbury’s and are motivated to apply the latest scientific evidence to improving the sustainability of their operations and manage their soils more effectively.
Chris Collins introduced the current programme of soil science research recently funded by NERC and BBSRC, including the STARS (Soils Training And Research Studentships) Centre for Doctoral Training and the ‘Soil & Rhizosphere Interactions for Sustainable Agri-ecosystems’ (SARISA) programme. Chris introduced his role in co-ordinating these activities across the country along with his administrative, and communications team based at The University of Reading
Tom Sizmur introduced some preliminary data from a suite of experiments at Rothamsted Research that he worked on as a postdoctoral researcher. The experiments reveal that the addition of organic matter to soils can rapidly increase earthworm number and biomass in soils. The earthworms break-up, incorporate and mix the organic materials into the soil. This is essentially a form of ‘biological cultivation’ which improves the structure of the soil, via the formation of aggregates and connected pore networks. He revealed that the structure of the soil was modified by the presence of earthworm burrows which makes it easier for plant roots to penetrate and for water to infiltrate. The larger, deeper root network that resulted from ‘biological cultivation’ increased the yield of cereal crops.