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27 August 2020

Research from the University of Basel has confirmed that climate change and intensive land use are accelerating soil erosion by water, and that soil loss due to water runoff could increase dramatically globally over the next 50 years. The piece ultimately calls for sustainable land cultivation.

Ranchers and conservationists have joined forces to preserve grassland biodiversity in Oregon. The Nature Conservancy estimates 50% of US grasslands have been lost in the past 150 years. Overgrazing is notoriously a cause of soil degradation and compaction; the project aims to establish how cattle provide regenerative agricultural benefits – essential ecological disturbance and increased organic matter – so that both ranchers and grassland thrive.

That our soil is heavily degraded is no longer news: it is now time to focus on solutions. This Green Biz article delves in to science- and tech-based data-gathering methods that improve understanding of soils and how to remediate them: “Combining microbiology, DNA sequencing, data science and machine learning, we can digitize the physical, chemical and biological aspects of the soil to generate evidence-based, actionable soil intelligence.”

Farmers are responding to a looming Brexit deadline in a variety of ways. One organic farm in Cambridge has declared itself carbon negative, where increasing sequestered carbon offsets emissions from machinery (naturally declining under organic practices) and livestock. The farm now meets the ELM payment criteria of carbon storage, public access and biodiversity.

The American Society of Agronomy has written on how the application of biochar restores soil carbon and productivity of croplands degraded by heavily tillage. They conclude more research is needed to assess the response of different soil types and climates.

Biochar has also been used to revitalise Norfolk’s famous Kett’s Oak, the health of which has been in progressive decline. The tree is already 500 years old and conservationists hope the improvements will help it live for another 500 at least. Ongoing monitoring will assess the success of the soil improvement measure.

1/5 of the world’s soil is now too salty for growing crops, a serious issue that scientists are trying to combat for the sake of the people impacted and future food production. An Israeli group has now developed a method to treat seeds that has resulted in a 32% increase of yield in saline soils.

Earthworms are our friends in the soil world, but in the Arctic they are an invasive species that could have the same effect on plant growth as a 3 degree rise in temperature. The worms have hitchhiked to the area and may now be making the soil too fertile, scientists warn.

A Northern Ireland road has been blocked by hundreds of tonnes of peat and soil after a huge landslide caused by torrential rain, whilst landslides elsewhere in the area have caused further problems to travel and businesses. More rain is expected.

The islands of St Kitts & Nevis are struggling with serious soil erosion caused by the land’s natural structures, shifting land uses and a lack of soil conservation measures. Flooding linked to land degradation and chronic sedimentation has also become a frequent occurrence. The government is now stepping in, with the backing of the UNEP and others.

Drylands cover roughly 40% of the earth, and support 40% of the human population, according to the authors of new research that has found it may be possible to make arid regions more resilient to climate change and overgrazing via the gene-splicing of soil microbes. For example, bacteria engineered to store more water or phosphorous could then enrich soil, enabling plant growth and shade creation.

Our friend Guy Singh-Watson has written on the importance of and practical methods for conserving soil, one of his favourite topics, for his From the Farm column of Wicked Leeks. This time the focus is on soil moisture conservation, with detail of some historical vs modern soil management methods.

Scientists from RUDN University have found that heavy metals in soils suppress enzyme activity by up to 3.5x normal levels, with the most prominent effect on those that support carbon and sulphur cycling. The team hope the research will support more efficient use and fertilisation of agricultural lands.

…and another study has identified an association between heavy metal/radioactive soil pollution and the antibacterial resistance of soil bacteria. It has been found that, when exposed to such pollution, some bacteria can develop resistance to the pollutants – but there is also evidence to suggest they can develop resistance to antibiotics at the same time, with potential consequences for human and animal medicines.

A new sustainability certification, the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) program, has been established in the US after a year-long pilot phase. The standards are based around 3 pillars: soil health and land management, animal welfare, and farmer/worker fairness. Farmers are required to continually make improvements in order to progress through the levels of bronze, silver and gold.