Digging for Innovation, Meet the Judge; Soil Health Expert Blog from Prof. Jenni Dungait

Soil science seeks to increase our knowledge and understanding of how soils work because our lives literally depend on it. After decades of treating soils like dirt, science is revealing that soil is a living system that requires care and respect if we want it to continue to support human wellbeing. British farming urgently needs the transfer of this knowledge into practical tools and training to continue to deliver high quality and nutritious food whilst protecting the environment.

The degradation and loss of soils caused by human activities across the world threaten not only our current and future food supplies but also our clean drinking water and the quality of the air we breathe. The loss of soil organic carbon is a key indicator of soil degradation because it means that the living part of soil has died and been released as CO2, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Soil degradation is made worse by climate change: extreme flooding, droughts and storms increase the damage and loss of our soils. Time is running out to save our soils.

The link between healthy humans, healthy food and healthy soils is becoming clear. The term ‘soil health’ means that soils function well and can cope with change caused by humans, including agricultural management and climate change. Modern soil science is revealing that healthy soils only arise if soil physics, chemistry and biology are working together. Increasing soil organic carbon levels is a key indicator of soil health because it indicates that soil biology is recovering from degradation.

There is a revolution in the way that farmers value their soils as crop yield gaps get wider around the world, despite technological innovations. UK farmers increasingly understand the importance of looking after their soils as part of the strategy for sustainable farming businesses that are ready to face the challenges of the future. Farmers’ thirst for knowledge about how to better manage their soils better is building. But science and technology lag behind in delivering solutions to support farm productivity by optimising soil health and function.

Farmers are the ultimate multi-taskers. They not only deliver the food that we eat but act as stewards of the rural environment. Time is always scarce so tools that help farmers to deal with the complex decision making and problem-solving that they face every day are urgently required. Evolving precision farming approaches are successful because they recognise that there is never a ‘one size fits all’ solution. In the same way, tools that help farmers to understand what is going on in their soils must accommodate natural variation at the field-scale, and guide them rapidly towards choosing appropriate management options that are right for their business.

Prof Jenni Dungait is a judge for the Digging for Innovation Challenge, organsied by Farm491 and BASF. The competition aims to incentivise innovators to focus on the issues between soil health, productivity and bio-diversity in the UK, and to create tools and approaches across the agricultural sectors that addresses these issues.

The deadline for entries is 30 November 2020, with judging taking place in January 2021.The overall winner will receive a £5000 cash prize, plus 12 months mentoring and business support from Farm491.

To find out more and apply, click here