2016 has started very badly. The floods in northern England and southern Scotland may have subsided from the front pages of the newspapers, but everywhere remains waterlogged, preventing a lot of normal farming; the homes and shops will take months to clear, and the Tadcaster bridge remains down. Cuts in support for renewable energy in the UK are resulting in cutbacks just when other countries are piling in. And by the end of the year we could see UK out of the European Union, and the US led by Trump.
All of this makes it even more important to improve the resilience of our food supplies. Looking after soil is an important part of this process. I was in Dundee on Friday at the James Hutton Institute, where my long-time colleagues and friends Cathy Hawes and Geoff Squire have been working on a new long-term agricultural experiment. The photo of waterlogging on one half of a potato field, managed conventionally, compared with the much more normal-looking organic field, tells you all you need to how about how big an impact this kind of work could make to coping with very wet weather. But the real trick would be to somehow extend this improvement in soils to “conventional’ intensive cropping.
Progress is being made. The MycoRhizaSoil project is now in its second year, with larger plots now sown with combinations of wheat varieties, cultivation treatments and inoculation with soil fungi, to explore how farm practices can be tweaked to improve soil quality. SoilBioHedge is also well established, that explores the potential for using the increased biodiversity in field edges to improve the soil further into the field. And I’ll be in China soon as part of a new project that seeks to use urban wastes as agricultural inputs. It may not be much in the grand scheme of things, but it all helps.