Soil running out, growing faba beans in Scotland for people & fish, and Miscanthus for power stations?

When will our planet’s soil run out, given the way we’re (mis)using it? In about 50 years, according to Professor John Crawford, now director of the Sustainable Systems Programme at Rothamsted Research and formerly at the University of Sydney, Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who was speaking at a British Ecological Society organised meeting. Soil stores about 70% of the planet’s fresh water and provides 99% of the food we grow. Yet we still don’t understand it as a dynamic, living ecosystem of great complexity.

It’s over 40 years since I graduated in Soil Science from the University of Aberdeen and I was fascinated to hear about both some of what’s been learnt since then and that there is still so much unknown. I was blown away by a great video his research group in Sydney did, which was an animation of flying through a tiny part soil through the minute pores within the soil structure – reminded me of a bit from Star Wars. You can see it here – and hear him say a bit more about how soil structure is organized by the billions of bacteria and mycorrhiza in it in a short Tedex talk here

The BES meeting was held at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany’s Innovation Farm, just outside Cambridge. It was in the demonstration fields outside that I spoke to another of the speakers at the meeting, Dr Pietro Ianneta, from the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, about his work on getting more pulses grown in Scotland, in particular faba beans. Making less demands on the soil linked to changing dietary patterns was one of the point John Crawford touched on – with the costs of beef consumption US Style in particular hitting the headlines at the moment. Pietro’s work with faba beans is helping lay the groundwork for that – as a food both for people and fish, possibly replacing the fishmeal and soymeal used in fish farms, eg salmon.

More controversially, Jon McCalmont from Aberystwyth University, is just finishing his PhD on growing another crop – elephant grass or Miscanthus – as a fuel. He also argues this is far better than growing maize and oilseed rape for anaerobic digestors. I asked him, in a somewhat windy spot in the field, to explain more.

The title for the meeting was ‘Growing Ecosystem Services Around Farming’ which, perhaps fortunately, we did not get into discussing the meaning of too closely, as most of the other talks focused on ensuring biodiversity around farms to support pollinators and wildlife. I think the term ecosystem services is seriously problematic, as George Monbiot expanded upon in a just published article – The Price of Everything.


About geofftansey

I curate the Food Systems Academy, a free, on-line, open education resource to transform our food systems. I am also a member of the Food Ethics Council and chaired the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which reported in 2015.
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