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Abertay scientists and partners win £1 million grant to unearth the secrets of soil


Scientists at the University of Abertay Dundee are part of a £1-million project investigating the basis for all life on earth – soil.

Professor Iain Young, Director of the University’s SIMBIOS centre, is heading a team of Abertay specialists collaborating with the Institute of Arable Crop Research and ADAS a private research company based in England.

The research, funded by a grant of more than £988,000 from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is aimed at providing an improved understanding of how organic carbon – in the form of compost or manure – can affect how soil behaves.

Professor Young’s team will be studying how the biophysical and biochemical properties of soil are affected by the fungi that live within it, while partner institutions look at the practical application of such knowledge to land management in the UK. Meanwhile, seven sites across the UK are conducting field trials looking at how different soils react to varying additions of organic carbon.

“Without soil, there would be no farming, no civilisation, and a very different kind of life on planet Earth,” said Professor Young. “Despite that, much of the way that soil works is a mystery to us.”

Mistreating soil through intensive long-term farming and too much use of chemicals can eventually create ‘dustbowls’ such those that almost destroyed agriculture in the Midwestern USA in the 1930s, or those which have devastated parts of northwestern China and Inner Mongolia in the last five years.

Professor Young continued: “Not only does poor soil management destroy agriculture in local areas, it also has a major environmental impact around the globe.

“Degradation of the soil becomes most likely when the proportion of organic carbon in the soil drops below 2%, but we don’t know exactly how the carbon interacts with the bacteria and fungi that live naturally in the soil. We can’t therefore predict how manipulating the carbon content by adding compost or manure will affect the long-term sustainability and productivity of the soil.”

Professor Young pointed out that healthy soils are enormously important for maintaining the diversity of life on earth.

“Soil teems with life,” he said. “In a single handful of soil, there are more individual organisms than the total number of human beings who have ever lived. Within that, there are thousands of different species of bacteria and fungi, including many that still haven’t been identified or studied by science.

“To a greater or lesser degree, they are interacting with each other and also with their immediate environment – making it more or less damp, for example – according to their own requirements for living. We need to know much, much more about how these interactions and how they are influenced or interrupted by human activities such as adding compost, moisture or chemical fertilisers.

“In short, we know that adding organic carbon to soil is good for it, but we don’t know exactly why,” he added.

Professor Young said that the need for answers to these questions was become increasingly urgent, as a growing world population put pressure on food supplies, and therefore on the planet’s limited stocks of fertile soil.

“There isn’t enough soil on Earth to be able to grow organic food for all of humanity,” he said, “but human experience has shown that intensive farming is not sustainable in the long-run. We need to find a sustainable middle-way between the two.”

Kevin Coe | alfa
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