15 November 1996

Science to support soils unique place

FEW farmers treat soil as dirt. And if government plans come to fruition they wont get the chance.

The recent Royal Commission report on the sustainable use of soils stresses their importance as a national asset, said David Powlson of IACR Rothamsted. It wants real teeth introduced to support the code of good practice, as used for water and air quality. The goal for researchers at IACR Rothamsted is to ensure any rules are based on sound science.

The commission report argues that in addition to profitable, sustainable farming, soils have an important role in water catchment, providing natural habitats and providing scope for some waste disposal.

To ensure soils continue meeting those objectives they need monitoring, Dr Powlson explained. Initial interest in a single factor such as organic matter has been resisted. Although closely linked to some soil qualities, it is not crucial for crop performance, he noted. Instead Rothamsted research is pointing towards a system based on the diversity and activity of soil organisms.

A positive aspect of a monitoring system is that it could provide an early warning of problems, Dr Polwson added. Farmers would be better able to prove that soils were being damaged by unwanted inputs from industry such as sewage sludge or atmospheric depositions.


SOIL TESTS


&#8226 Soils important for farming, water catchment, waste disposal and habitats.

&#8226 Government wants monitoring to check quality.

&#8226 Tests being developed.

&#8226 Could lead to field checks and penalties.