Monday, 8 August 2016

Brexit - the long view

Now that the full ramifications of Brexit for farming, the environment, and all they provide for the UK population are becoming more fully appreciated, perhaps it is time for reflection.  A few years ago we did this by bringing together the latest agri-environmental science with the earliest available local community knowledge.  It was a fulfilling experience in improving our collective understanding of our past, present and, most importantly, our future management of the land.  The book that resulted from this project is now freely available from the British Library by clicking Exploring a Productive Landscape .

We recognised then that we have a few challenges ahead of us, not least the multiple increasing impacts of climate change, a growing national and global population, declining availability of natural resources such as land, fuel and nutrients, and economic pressure from global markets.  Brexit will influence the strategies adopted to address these issues in future.

There have been bigger changes before of course.  Dispersed Roman and Anglo-Saxon farmsteads were replaced by the feudal medieval open field system which, in turn, gave way to enclosure.  These were largely closed systems in which resources were recycled locally.  Without the protection of the Corn Laws, late nineteenth century steam power increased exposure of national food production to global markets and resulted in a long period of depression for the rural population. National food security was prioritised in the Second World War, and the 'Green Revolution' contributed to increased food production, world population growth, and our dependence on fossil fuels. How significant Brexit is in the context of these historical events remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that the consequences for the way the British countryside works for us all could be considerable.

Our membership of the EU has coincided with a period of increasing realisation that the recent historical trajectory is not sustainable.  EU-funded research collaborations across Europe have helped improve our understanding of agri-envionmental issues, and funding has been made available to reward farmers for delivering services that bring no immediate economic benefit to the farmers themselves, but result in multiple benefits to the wider population as a whole.  My involvement in a scientific review of agri-environmental issues for the EU back in 1999, first highlighted for me the wide range of scales, impacts and people associated with the management of soil alone.  Now we are embarking on our latest EU-funded research project, SoilCare, which specifically addresses the public and private benefits of improved soil management.

A combination of history and science reminds us that the delivery of this mix of public and private benefits must be a fundamental requirement for future agricultural policy.  As our research at the Allerton Project highlights repeatedly, a multifunctional approach to land management, delivering benefits at a range of scales, is what we need to aim for to achieve both an economically vibrant farming industry and an environment which underpins the health and wellbeing of our society as a whole. We increase the importation of food from outside Europe at the expense of social and enviromental damage elsewhere in the world.  There are increasing concerns that the implications of this for us are not confined to a troubled conscience, but contribute to increased risk of social and political unrest, as well as to multiple local and national impacts of global climate change. The world is a smaller place than it has ever been before.

The dialogue in Exploring a Productive Landscape seems particularly poignant now, given the constraints on farm profitability and public funding.  Economic uncertainy outside the EU means that we need to use the limited resources available to us more efficiently and more wisely than ever before.  The task now is firstly to develop, secondly to promote, and thirdly to support the methods by which farmers can deliver healthy soils, woods, wildlife and water, while also providing the food and energy that we all demand.  That will have a cost, but it is one that must be paid, not just for us, but for those who take up the baton for the next stage in our history.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Soils research underlying land management

Both the farming and scientific communities understand that soil physical properties influence our ability to produce food and make money from the land.  There is also an increasing acceptance that soil biology plays a role.  But how are soil physical and biological properties related? This is the question posed by Leicester University PhD student Falah Hamad.  He is currently in his second year of data collection.  At Loddington and another site in Cambridgeshire, he is collecting data across a range of land uses and soil conditions, from compacted arable land, through better structured arable soils and pasture, to established woodland.
Falah Hamad measures CO2 emissions from pasture
As well as soil physical properties and organic matter, he is carrying out repeated surveys of earthworms and measuring CO2 efflux as an indicator of soil microbial activity at each of the sites.  His results are already revealing how earthworm numbers respond to reduced soil disturbance, and how compaction and soil organic carbon differ across land uses.  These data also provide a valuable baseline for our continuing research at Loddington, and provide new data for pasture and woodland to help us build on our existing knowledge of arable land use.  They will help us understand some of the biological process underlying (literally) our management of the land.

This is useful to us, and helps us provide guidance to farmers and advisors through our ongoing knowledge exchange programme, but is it what farmers want to hear?  The knowledge and interests of scientists and farmers are not always perfectly aligned!  This is the subject of another PhD project being carried out by Stephen Jones from Nottingham University.  He is taking an interdisciplinary approach, combining social and natural sciences to compare the attributes attached to soils by scientists and farmers.
Are farmers and scientists looking for the same thing in soil?
In his research, Stephen will be interviewing arable farmers from a range of backgrounds to find out what they want soils to deliver for them.  He will also be gathering data on the soils themselves to apply scientific physical, chemical and biological attributes to those soils.  Such properties are relevant to the whole range of 'services' that soils deliver for society and to the policy objectives of government.  But how well matched are these societal and scientific objectives with those of the people actually managing the land?  Combining social and natural sciences within one study will help us find out and guide our future knowledge exchange activities.