Ditch the plough, increase diversity, grow cover crops - three achievable steps towards 'Net Zero'?

Professor Jane Rickson of the Cranfield Soil and Agrifood Institute

Agri-tech offers ‘soil up’ approach to restoring environmental balance and farm incomes...

Small changes can have big impacts – it is interactions on a microbial scale in soils that drive the carbon cycle and impact climate change. So, advances offered by agri-tech to improve soil health could increase productivity, expand carbon storage and enhance biodiversity across the 72 per cent of land in the UK that is cultivated and also provide new revenue streams for farmers.

Dr Belinda Clarke is Director of Agri-TechE, the business-focused membership organisation that brings together farmers with technologists and researchers within an innovation hub. Its forthcoming virtual REAP conference (10th November) will be discussing a technology roadmap for achieving Net Zero.

Speaking ahead of REAP, she comments: “To achieve the global ambitions for agriculture, food production and land management, we need a much better understanding of how systems at different scales operate and interact.

“Restoring environmental balance from the soils upwards is a pragmatic approach to tackling the global issues and everybody can play a role – gardeners, farmers, land managers and also consumers through their food choices.”

Keynote speaker Professor David Montgomery, author of Growing a Revolution, has a global view of soil health, he comments: “I have seen how the recipe of minimal disturbance, keeping the soil covered with living plants at all times and growing at least three or more crops in rotation works on farms around the world.  The simplest advice boils down to ‘ditch the plough, cover up and grow diversity’. However, there is also an urgent need for innovation to accelerate soil building.”

Professor Jane Rickson of the Cranfield Soil and Agrifood Institute (pictured) advises government and others on soil quality indicators; she comments that healthy soil offers societal benefits: “Our green and pleasant land is determined by the quality of topsoil, along with the nutritional value of our food, protection from flooding and water retention during droughts. All of these services are driven by soil microbiology.” 

Reward for public goods is one element of the UK agricultural strategy but difficult to measure.

Prof Montgomery comments: “We should incentivise practices that build soil health by linking specific verifiable practices, like no-till and cover crops, to credits based on regionally calibrated studies to establish an expected benefit, such as increase in carbon content or maintenance of it in the soil. This would reward farmers not only for increasing carbon but also for good practice that has helped retain it.”

Tools for monitoring, measuring and managing soil carbon could provide metrics for rewarding best practice. Carbon storage is a source of revenue for farmers. The technology that is needed to underpin this will be discussed during the REAP Sofa Session.

Participating in this session will be Stuart Hill, Head of Technology and Innovation at Hutchinsons Ltd. He observes that tools such as Omnia - a decision support hub that pulls information together about farm and field performance, soil and nutrition properties - supports productive and profitable management across different scales.

“Sustainable financial and environmental farming and advice is about Integrated Farm and Crop Management. Soil is a real focal point, if you improve it the more likelihood of a sustainable business. The question is, what is improvement and how do we achieve it?

“Modern agri-technologies give us the capacity to monitor and measure. For example, using our Terramap soil sensing and linking this to other technologies such as NDVI imagery and yield mapping, will pull data from across the farm; building up a picture of how larger and smaller scale changes could improve profitability.”

The falling cost of computer processing and the increasing capability of mobile technologies have accelerated agri-tech on all levels, from knowledge of soil microbes and plant breeding through to risk analysis and forecasting.

Agri-TechE’s forthcoming virtual REAP conference includes farm-tech presentations that show how precision agri-tech developed in the last five years is being used on-farm.

Dr Clarke concludes: “Taking broader ‘one agricultural’ type approaches that recognise natural systems are interconnected will enable us to be more innovative with our solutions.

“Agri-tech is, we believe, a key enabler for that to happen and at REAP we will be bringing together individuals with different perspectives to review the emerging science and technologies, examine the impact of agri-tech innovations in the field and discuss the technology roadmap going forward.

“Significant progress has already been made: 90 percent of the early-stage agri-tech entrepreneurs that we have profiled in the REAP Start-Up Showcase over the last five years are going strong, gaining farmer collaborators, attracting investment and bringing new products to market. The global challenges may feel overwhelming but the focus of the agri-tech innovation ecosystem is to look for solutions.”

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Agri-TechE is a business focused membership organisation, supporting the growth of a world-leading network of innovative farmers, producers, scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs who share a vision of increasing the productivity, profitability and sustainability of agriculture.
Together we aim to help turn challenges into business opportunities and facilitate mutually beneficial collaboration.