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30 January 2020

New research has found that plants manipulate their soil environment to ensure a steady supply of nutrients. Plants make and release molecules which allow them to communicate with different symbiotic microbes, depending on what their nutritional needs are. The study also explored how the presence of organic carbon in the soil impacts on signalling of competing plants, with the overall reveal that higher carbon levels repressed signals by up to 98%.

Further recent research has explored the functions of the previously neglected protists, ubiquitous in soil where they are key contributors to nutrient cycling and energy transfer. The findings provide a cross-ecosystem perspective on the factors structuring soil protist communities and their likely contributions to soil functioning.

A new Foundation, Re-Soil, has been launched and is calling for the resurrection of a European Soil Directive, as well as a network of soil monitors and sensors, to restore and protect European soils.

The debate around veganism, livestock grazing and dietary changes for climate change mitigation continues to rage; here, in a refreshingly compromising take, one author suggests ‘vegans and ranchers’ should work together for the benefit of soil health: “…rather than staying divided for the sake of ideological differences, there’s room to take the best of both worlds and work together to end factory farming while rebuilding soil.”

Rattan Lal makes a compelling case for payment for soil carbon sequestration – as a necessary incentive for largescale regenerative agriculture uptake. The proposal is becoming more popular in America: Democratic presidential hopefuls including Pete ButtigiegElizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders have all recently pledged to pay for carbon farming if elected, and the article outlines further schemes in the pipeline or underway. But this is just one piece of the puzzle, say commentators, as ‘Powerful economic, political, and social forces steer many U.S. farmers toward practices that emit carbon rather than capture it’ and ‘farming moves at the speed of trust.’

And our friends at Riverford have turned their focus to soil carbon storage in the UK, where ‘the picture…is nuanced and complex’ and the approach is far more cautious; but, as the Soil Association says, “we need to do a lot, lot more.” They suggest a focus on restoring peatlands, in this piece in the latest edition of Wicked Leeks.

A new technology consisting of artificial ‘microreservoirs’ buried below ground could help increase yields of farmers that struggle with sandy soils, such as those in Africa. However, whilst the system ensures water remains accessible in close proximity to the plant roots, questions remain around cost of installation and resulting plastic pollution.

An interesting Bloomberg piece suggests perennial crops are the answer for sustainable agriculture and long term soil health, and presents a new grain – Kernza – that provides multiple environmental benefits due its five-year planting cycle and can be used as a happy substitute for wheat and rice.