Scientists have been awarded £1.6m to investigate how to make our soils more sustainable and resilient to environmental change.
Soils are coming under increasing pressure through nutrient depletion and there is an urgent need to ensure that soils found across different farming landscapes continue to deliver vital resources for food security.
The study, led by Rothamsted Research, will look at whether soils in different ecosystems, ranging from intensive agriculture through to extensive, semi-natural systems, are robust enough to cope with environmental pressures from climate change and human activity.
Researchers will investigate how soils in different ecosystems respond to change and different management practices.
Soil microbial diversity and activity in conventional arable farming will be compared with grassland systems, widely considered to be more natural, to understand the services provided under different intensities of management.
To improve the delivery of the vital ecosystem services provided by soils, the team hopes to identify which management practices will benefit the widest range of services, and where trade-offs, such as improving soil fertility but decreasing water quality, might occur.
Penny Hirsch, principal investigator in the project at Rothamsted, said: “This will help to inform policymakers, farmers and other land managers on how best to protect our soils, which underpin the vital goods and services provide by the land.”
Rothamsted Research will lead the project in collaboration with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), Lancaster University, the University of Aberdeen and Imperial College London.
Soil scientist Nick Ostle, from Lancaster University, said: “Soils underpin food security and have a crucial influence on greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient and energy cycles, and the flow and quality of our waters.
“But these functions are vulnerable to overexploitation and climate change. This research will deliver new science to improve understanding that will contribute to future soil security.”
The funds have been made available under the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) Soils Security Programme.