Soils could be key to global food security, say scientists

Soils could be key to global food security, say scientists
Credit: Shutterstock.com/ Nolanberg11

Scientists in the UK are working on a ground-breaking project which, they say, could ultimately result in soils being “created” as a way to ensure global food security.

Researchers from the University of Plymouth are working with the Eden Project to explore how recycled and waste material could be transformed and then reused in agriculture and other sectors.

The scientists say it could “revolutionise the soil industry”, leading to custom-made soils of varying characteristics being designed for various purposes across a range of locations and markets.

The FABsoil project is being led by Dr Mark Fitzsimons and Dr Jennifer Rhymes with funding from Agri-Tech Cornwall, a three-year £9.6 million initiative part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, with match-funding from Cornwall Council.

It will feature in a day-long event as part of the University’s 2019 Research Festival, showcasing how researchers and academics are working with global industry partners to change policy and develop real-world solutions to protect soils.

Every year, around 12 million hectares of cropland are lost to soil erosion globally while the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has suggested that one-quarter of the earth’s land area is highly degraded.

Dr Fitzsimons, Associate Professor (Reader) in Organic Geochemistry, said: “Soil is the root of our survival, and a key component for food security, environmental protection and as a home to wildlife.

“But the quality of it is constantly under threat from a range of factors, notably the intensification of agriculture and carbon loss through climate change. As populations continue to grow, we face the real prospect of a soil crisis and taking direct action now is the only way to begin to counter that issue.”

The University’s involvement in Agri-Tech Cornwall is being led by the Sustainable Earth Institute and builds on Plymouth’s existing world-leading research reputation. For this project, the research team has sourced a range of waste material from small businesses across the South West made up of composted green waste, clay, grit and bark.

They are currently testing several different artificial soil mixtures at open sites on the University campus, along with other samples that are more irrigated and controlled.

Those tests will last between 12 and 18 months and are being run in conjunction with laboratory experiments measuring the performance of the soils, including emissions of greenhouse gases.

The goal is to develop a blueprint for making the ultimate product from recycled and waste materials, ensuring it is stable and fertile and maintaining a reservoir of slow-release nutrients to fuel plant growth without the high demand for fertiliser application.

The soils could be used in a plethora of applications, everything from landscaping and urban restoration to high-value crop production, and at sites all over the world including in developing countries.

The Eden Project crafted 83,000 tonnes of fabricated soils, these soils represent one of the longest running trials for this technology.

A world-class garden has been created on this soil and working with University of Plymouth the behaviour of the soils is being tested and improvements made for future batches of soil. This work directly feeds into Eden’s overall sustainability agenda. Soil conservation and regeneration is a key interest for the Eden Project.