The Week in Soil

This week is a big week for climate talks as the UN Climate Summit takes place alongside NYC Climate Week, following last Friday’s worldwide climate strike. Additionally, the IPCC released a Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in A Changing Climate, which mentions the massive losses of greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane which will occur once the permafrost melts. This highlights how much carbon there is stored in the soils, and what a huge impact they will have on the climate.

An Informal Meeting of Ministers for Agriculture took place this week in Helsinki. They discussed how important soils are for climate change and how they want to incorporate carbon sequestration in soils as part of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The meeting emphasised how more research is needed into the methods of measuring soil carbon, how to increase carbon in practice and the spatial variability of inputting carbon, as well as an increase in the development of innovation.

Research at the University of York has discovered that soil microbes can make plants become resistant to the Bacterial wilt disease caused by Ralstonia solanacearum. The disease mainly affects tomato and potato plants and has caused huge economic losses worldwide, particularly in Asia and Africa. The research has found that the surviving plants were grown in soils which contained rare bacteria. These bacteria could possibly be used in the future to inoculate soils to protect plants from pathogens.

A three-year study at the University of Cranfield has found that earthworm populations have tripled in size after a cover crop treatment. An increase in earthworm populations mean an increase in organic matter, carbon storage, and nitrogen and moisture levels. This is particularly beneficial for farmers as they can reduce their tilling and cut cultivation costs.

Researchers at the ICAR-Indian Institute of Soil and Water Conservation have found a new way to measure soil erosion by assessing levels of radioactive cesium in soil. They can use this method to measure historic, comparative soil erosion as well as soil conservation strategies.

Thomas Crowther, at the ETH Zurich, has found yet another negative feedback of climate change. With rising global temperatures, soil microbes release more carbon dioxide than they would normally, and some microbes can survive better in warmer conditions.

The crop and grain production company Frontier have announced they will introduce five ‘Soil Life’ demo sites in order to research and develop the most sustainable arable systems. This will include reduced or zero tillage, sub-soiling, long term cover crops and organic manures and the research will take place over a four to five-year period.

In Iowa, USA, they have been having huge pollution problem due to nitrates run-ff from agricultural fields. Illegal levels of nitrates have been found in drinking water, which can lead to cancers, birth defects and ‘blue baby syndrome’. Additionally, nitrates have been killing marine life in the Gulf of Mexico, as it is creating an ecological ‘dead zone’.

Research at the University of East Anglia may have revolutionised the way in which fertiliser can be applied. Bacteria that some plant use to fix nitrogen have a protein, RirA, which can be deactivated if levels of iron become too high. This is important as although iron is an essential nutrient, it can become toxic if in too high concentrations.

Finally, the Labour Party have announced they are working towards a net zero carbon emissions by 2030 at the Labour Party conference in Brighton and have said they plan to ‘work collaboratively with farmers to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector’.