Saturday, August 24, 2019

Traffic light system ‘could save Britain’s soils’

August 8, 2019 by  
Filed under News & Business

A traffic light system could be used to rank the health status of Britain’s soils, according to a research partnership led by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.

A red, amber and green scorecard is being trialled at six long-term research farms. Red soil health indicators will require growers to stop and investigate, while green means continue to monitor. A simpler soil MOT test is also being trialled to help farmers check their land.

The MOT provides a guide to carry out nutrient analysis, an earthworm count and a visual evaluation, while measuring soil pH levels as well as organic matter content. Growers can then see whether their soil is healthy and what work needs to be done.

Soil health is increasingly important – and is expected to form the cornerstone of the government’s post-Brexit support for agriculture. But assessing soil status often proves challenging because there are so many different soil types and conditions across the country.

Years of insight

The two-part system draws on more than 30 years of insight. But it can take up to 100 years to form just 2-3cm of soil – with Britain having more than 700 different soil types which are home to 27 species of earthworm.

AHDB resource management scientist Amanda Bennett said: “Just like our transport network, our farmers and growers can be helped by a colour-coded system so they have confidence to continue, or know when they need to stop and try a different method.

“Organic matter is contained within soil and it is more than half carbon, so carrying out a check similar to an MOT will help farmers to fuel growth, lock-up carbon and protect our environment while they produce food.

“The ultimate goal in developing this is that anyone should be able to follow a simple method to better understand the condition of soils in their fields or even their garden, and identify areas where they can make improvements, if required.”

DNA testing

The work has been carried out as part of the AHDB’s Great Soils programme which has committed almost £6m of funding to soil research partnerships. The five-year initiative aims to increase understanding of soil biology and develop a toolkit to measure and manage soil health.

Ms Bennett said: “On-farm research trials, which are developing the information for the soil traffic lights, are currently looking at molecular techniques such as DNA testing to develop increased knowledge of soil biology alongside the more traditional soil health measurements.

“This a more technical system to help us shape a measurement which farmers and growers can use no matter where they are based.”

The soil MOT will be launched when feedback from farmers and growers has been received, allowing time for crop rotation and treatments to be measured.

To find out how to measure soil organic matter visit www.ahdb.org.uk/greatsoils.

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