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10 January 2020

It’s a bumper crop of articles to kick off 2020’s Week in Soil series, as we catch up with news from the end of 2019, and organisations and outlets hit the ground running with soil health updates and initiatives to hail the New Year.

The SSA attended the Oxford Real Farming Conference this week, the annual gathering of the huge community of farmers, growers, activists, scientists and sustainability enthusiasts working towards a different type of agriculture – one with the health of people, communities, nature and the climate at its heart. It serves as a contrast to the establishment-rooted Oxford Farming Conference taking place at the same time on the other side of the city. We enjoyed a wealth of soil-related discussion alongside policy, agroecology and research updates. Catch up with our coverage from across the two days here, listen back to Radio 4’s Farming Today live broadcasts from the conference here and here and explore #ORFC20 on twitter for more wide ranging news and comment. Check back to the ORFC website for their official roundup of the event in due course.

Sir Henry Dimbleby, the lead on the government’s planned new National Food Strategy, was speaking on the plans at the OFC. The strategy will apparently ‘seek to address the health and environmental problems caused by the food supply chain’ with a focus on biodiversity, soil quality and carbon savings. Sounds good.

A variety of different styles of farming and practices were represented at the conference, including those advocating no-till as a method to build soil organic matter and sequestrate carbon – a movement going from strength to strength in America. Their “No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators” podcast provides a great introduction to the movement, and in the latest episode (the first of 2020) a retired no-tiller gives more detail on the ins and outs of his farming experiences.

One overriding theme present throughout the event was the importance of continuously sampling and testing soils. Successful Farming has outlined their view of the future of soil monitoring – digital tools, including satellite images and modelling of soil pests.

This Spokesman Review column piece provides a great background as to why we should care about soil, how farmers are taking action and the risks and benefits they experience by doing so – inspired by David Montgomery’s book “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life.”

And the Ecologist provides a further piece summing up the importance of and current threats to soils, and some of the actions being taken in the form of soil health-focused CAP reforms, the work of the Green Group in the European Parliament and a Green New Deal for the North West.

Soil as the solution to future water and food insecurity – and the mitigator of many other risks. Are people waking up to the need to restore and protect soil? US retailers Whole Foods have put regenerative agriculture at the top of its trends for 2020, and this Global Times piece outlines other action being taken around the world to save our soils.

“The importance of soil to human civilization cannot be overestimated – it is present in everything we touch.” So how do we get more people to care about it? Project Syndicate suggests one solution is to put a price on soils – and highlight the substantial economic benefits to be made from them.

Soil is our best ally in the fight against climate change’ states the Conversation, whilst also warning ‘we’re fast running out of it.’ They include a link to research that produced a clear scientific estimate of soil lifespans, using measured rates of soil formation and erosion, giving farmers and scientists a more accurate idea of how sustainable the world’s soil resources are – the first example of such data in the world.

Research from the University of Cambridge has found that the continual logging and reforesting of tropical forests is irreversibly leaching essential nutrients from the soil, reducing the overall health of the forest floor and pushing the nutrient content towards ecological limits. Project lead Professor David Coomes said “Phosphorus limitation is a really serious global issue: it’s one of the areas where humans are using a vital resource beyond sustainable levels.”

Scientists have made important new discoveries about the transformation of bedrock into soil. Bacteria use oxidation processes to weather and ‘feed’ on bedrock, breaking it down in to the mineral portions which provide plants with critical nutrients such as phosphorous and potassium. 

And significant new research from Cornell University has revealed that prior organic farming practices can have long term implications for future soil health and crop yields, also breaking down how specific elements of soil health, such as biodiversity and soil stability, affect crop productivity.

Master farmers in Indiana provide an update on the realities on the use of soil health practices in today’s agricultural economy at the State’s recent Farm Equipment & Tech Expo, as broadcast on the HAT Soil Health Podcast.

There’s a new generation of women developing solutions to some of the biggest challenges in agtech – an industry historically dominated by men. This piece tells the fascinating story of the creators of Trace Genomics,  soil testing kits that enable growers to compare soil health across multiple farms, manage disease risk by quantifying pathogen levels, and compare fertilizer performance and soil treatments.

The ‘ethics of veganism vs livestock’ debate continues to rage, and Pasture for Life Hon. President Jon Meadley aired his soil-centred views on the matter in the Financial Times at the beginning of this year.

A paper published in Science Advances last week highlights the increased soil drying in spring resulting from earlier vegetation greening due to climate change, and suggests increased foliage cover over the Northern Hemisphere provides a further soil moisture deficit which then carries through in to the summer months – which could then amplify the frequency and intensity of summer heatwaves. This has implications for climate change adaptation modelling and planning.

In a more anecdotal piece, Hatfield forest staff here describe the methods they are using to loosen and aerate the heavily compacted clay soil that has been trampled underfoot by year-round visitors to the National Trust woodland – whilst ensuring protection of the ancient trees and roots that run close to the surface.

And here the research of Lithuanian scientists in to methods of remediating soils contaminated by manufacturing sites and pesticide residues is explained.

Meanwhile, a natural solution to some toxic soil contaminants may have been found in the form of a particular Philippine fern. The Pteris melanocaulon can absorb high concentrations of both copper and arsenic without showing signs of toxicity, thereby acting as an effective rehabilitator of mining sites in the country at the end of operations.