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Sustainable Soil Management in the UK

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The global soil degradation crisis1 is threatening to undermine food and environmental security and costs the UK economy £1.2bn annually2 & 3. Ensuring soils are managed sustainably is becoming an urgent priority for UK farming and land management, as well as a policy concern. Achieving sustainable soil management (SSM) depends on the development and adoption of appropriate practices by land managers. However, there is very little evidence of both the adaptation of farming and land management in the UK to soil sustainability objectives, and the spread and influence of soil-oriented farming and land management networks in the UK.

The University of Sheffield and ADAS have completed a project to begin to address these gaps in evidence. Using a nationwide survey of soil management practices, social network mapping, and in-depth interviewing the research identified:

  1. The extent to which the general farming and land managing population are aware and engaged with SSM,
  2. The extent of the uptake of combined SSM practices in the UK,
  3. The number and make-up of organisations promoting combined SSM practices in the UK,
  4. What support is needed to enable wider adoption of combined SSM practices.
Sustainable Soil Management in the UK

Research Findings:

UK map of responsesThe nationwide survey had a fantastic response with a wide geographical spread. The final sample for analysis consisted of 339 responses.

  1. There is a wide up-take of sustainable soil management practices amongst UK farmers and land managers

The survey results revealed both a broad awareness and adoption of SSM practices in UK across different sectors. 92% reported that they practice sustainable soil management on their land and related a very broad range of activities in various combinations, and 85% reported currently practicing one of the SSM techniques proposed by the research team5

On average, respondents reported undertaking 4.5 of these SSM practices5 as part of their farming and land management. A significant number reported using of manure spreading (74%), cover crops (44%), min-tillage (37%) or no-tillage (32%). There was little evidence that different practices were being combined in similar ways on different farms. Rather, there seems to be no universal approach to SSM in the UK, and what works in terms of soil management is local to that farm, area and activity (for a more extensive and detailed overview of the research findings please see: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/sustainable-food/research/translational-transformative/achieving-sustainable-soil-management-uk).

  1. Knowledge exchange around sustainable soil management in the UK is fragmented

Farmer-driven networks are regularly recognised as being crucial to the circulation of knowledge in the farming community and the adoption of land management practices, technology and more6. Building on this the research worked to identify the organisations promoting and facilitating a combined approach to SSM in the UK7. Here the research found a small, tightly interlinked UK network which specifically focuses on combined SSM adoption. The core of which is formed of four directly linked organisations, with a fifth organisation closely tied to this core network.

The research also identified a much wider network of organisations, platforms (online and off-line) and groups who promote or engage with SSM; but for whom combined SSM approaches, or indeed sustainable soil management itself, is not the central concern. Rather, these organisations and groups advocate the use of SSM practices as a way to achieve other objectives, for example in Catchment Sensitive Farming. That said, these organisations perform an essential role by spreading awareness of SSM practices. The research identified the promotion of SSM practices in the UK as being primarily driven by:

  • Championing Experts (individual experts offering advice)
  • Championing Farmers (e.g. soil farmer of the year)
  • Farmer networks
  • Facilitated Groups (formal/ informal; public/ privately funded)
  • Platforms for knowledge exchange (social media, online forums, apps & toolkits)
  • Accreditation or certifications schemes/ organisations
  • Farmer discussion groups focusing on best practice learning
  1. How policy can support SSM in UK agriculture and land management

The project also aimed to understand how policy mechanisms could support increased adoption of combined approaches to SSM across the farming and land management community. Significantly, the research highlights that for the adoption of combined SSM participation in formal farming networks (i.e. membership organisations) and (traditional) farm advisors do not seem to have a strong influence. Furthermore, the research identified a series of barriers (detailed in the image right) and enabling mechanisms for the widespread uptake of combined approaches to SSM.

Barriers to the adoption of conservational SSM practices identified included:

  • Capital costs
  • Limitations of individual knowledge, supporting evidence and availability of expertise
  • Peer Pressure
  • Time, infrastructure and typological constraints
  • Concern for economic viability

 

Reflecting the barriers, mechanisms to enable the implementation of combined SSM in the UK included: Economic support and incentives, stronger regulation, community backing, scientific evidence, education, training & knowledge support.  

To find out more about the results of this project you can take listen to our webinar on the University of Sheffield website or get in touch with Samantha Outhwaite at samantha.outhwaite@adas.co.uk 

 

Footnotes:

  •  Graves, A. R., et al. "The total costs of soil degradation in England and Wales." Ecological Economics 119 (2015): 399-413
  • Defra’s “A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment” (2018) sets an objective for all soils in the UK to be managed sustainably by 2030. Also see, Evans, D, Quinton, J, Tye, A, Rodes, A, Davies, J, Mudd, S & Quine, T 2019, 'Arable soil formation and erosion: a hillslope-based cosmogenic nuclide study in the United Kingdom', SOIL, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 253-263.
  • Graves, A., Morris, J., Deeks, L., Rickson, J., Kibblewhite, M., Harris, J. & Farewell, T. 2011. Cost of soil degradation in England and Wales (CTE0946). Final project report to Defra.
  • https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/state-of-the-environment
  • SSM practices as determined in this research project: No-till, min-till, contour-adapted ploughing, Cover crops, growing legumes, overwinter stubble, Using compost/ slurry/ digestate/ manure, returning  crop residue, Leys, Diversified rotation (4+ crops within a 6 yr period, Ex. cover crops), Mob/holistic grazing. See the webinar for further information.
  • Krzywoszynska, A. (2019) "Making knowledge and meaning in communities of practice: What role may science play? The case of sustainable soil management in England." Soil Use and Management, Vol. 35 (1), Pp. 160-168.
  • We hypothesized finding a ‘community of practice’: a network of grass-roots farmer-led organisations with sustainable soil management as their central interest, with, as a central element, peer to peer learning and or support.
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