U-Grass: Understanding and enhancing soil ecosystem services and resilience in UK grass and croplands

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Inst of Biological and Environmental Sci


Humans are exerting increasing pressure on the Earth's soils to produce food crops and provide us with other natural resources. With growing populations and possible climate change it is important that we protect our soils so that they can continue to deliver these essential resources. Soils also provide many other "services" which benefit us; such as greenhouse gas regulation, nutrient cycling, and controlling the flows and quality of our waters. Unfortunately our knowledge and ability to predict how these services are affected with changes in land use and climate is limited. Many different soils are found globally in different environments, making it hard to predict responses over large scales. Soil, and therefore soil services is made through the activities of a wide variety of soil organisms, but they are traditionally hard to study and so we also know little about how this biological diversity acts to provide us with soil and wider services. New ways to study soil organisms are now revealing more information on the types of organisms which live in different soils around globally, and a key challenge is to learn how these organisms act to sustain soils and soil functions, and how these interactions are affected by climate and the way we manage our land.
This project seeks to address these issues by building on recent global-scale research and knowledge regarding the different organisms found in soil. Essentially we now know more about which organisms are found in different soils, and we now seek to examine whether this knowledge can help explain the different responses of our soils to land use and climate change. We will do this firstly using a survey approach, examining the effects of land use change on soil biodiversity, soil properties, and soil services in different soil systems around the UK. We will then take these soils and subject them to climate change to examine whether we can predict the changes in soil services based on the changes we observe in biodiversity. These data will provide fundamental knowledge on how different soils and their biodiversity and functions respond to change in land use and climate.
A second aim of our research is to examine the specific ways in which soil biodiversity regulates soil and its services. This "mechanistic" understanding could provide us with new ways to manage the land to deliver more sustainable soil stocks, giving us food, fibre and a healthy environment well into the future. Firstly we will examine how soil nutrient inputs affect the soil biota's activities in cycling carbon. This is important as soil organisms are primarily fed by nutrients from plants, but they can also respire carbon back to the atmosphere as CO2, and can also feed off existing organic matter decreasing soil carbon stocks. How soil biodiversity, land use and climate affect the balance of these processes is a large unknown in soil research and can have important consequences for our ability to predict future response of soils to change. We also seek to examine how the biodiversity itself drives these processes. Often in field studies we find differences in soil communities and processes, but the soil physical and chemical conditions also differ, so we can't determine if it is the environment or the biodiversity that is responsible for the difference in process rates. By manipulating soil diversity but maintaining a constant environment we can address these issues, and importantly validate approaches for enhancing soil biodiversity with new management practices to deliver soil security in field scenarios.
All of our research will be integrated using computer modelling approaches which will attempt to predict soil processes under different soil, management, and climatic scenarios. A major challenge is to see whether the incorporation of biodiversity parameters in these models will help predict responses over large landscape scales.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries and level of engagement:
1. Farmers and the wider agricultural sector. The agricultural sector faces the challenge of how to increase agricultural production to enhance food security while at the same time reducing environmental impacts. A primary goal of this project is to understand how land management in different environmental contexts affects potential trade-offs between multiple soil services; and also assess the degree to which management intervention in can modify trade-offs. All project partners we have good contacts with these stakeholders and throughout the project we will engage landowners and practitioners particularly in the field sampling in WP1. An information leaflet will be made to disseminate the aims of the project.
2. Retailers and agri-enterprises. e.g. Cotswold seeds. New commercial enterprises are developing products aimed at enhancing above ground services but their effects on soil sustainability are unknown. Various agri-food industry bodies will be involved as stakeholders though partner contacts, evidenced by formal project support of Syngenta, but we will also build on existing links existing links with Unilever, Tesco, Waitrose and PepsiCo.
3. The water industry and other businesses with interests in environmental sustainability. Eutrophication is a major issue in the UK, and flood prevention is an emerging challenge particularly in the UK, particularly in the large populated areas amongst agriculturally productive lands. Efforts to increase soil organic matter in such landscapes could prevent run off.
3. Environmental NGOs. Conservation practices leading to better service delivery above ground have unexplored consequences on biodiversity and soil services below ground.
4. Government agencies and policy-makers related to agriculture and ecosystem services (e.g. Natural England, Environment Agency, Environment Agency, Defra,). We have formal support from Government agencies, including Natural England, who will be involved from the outset of the project in our project committee to ensure that the project delivers results that can be integrated well into farm advice, agri-environment schemes, SSSI management. The role of PS as Science Director of ClimateXChange will ensure that project findings are disseminated in Scotland.
5. Academics and other research communities e.g. international and national programs such as the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative and Earth Microbiome Project; academic societies, the wider NERC Soil Security Programme, Other NERC -BBSRC research programmes such as NERC -BESS and Macronutrient Cycles programmes, and BBSRC SFS-SARISSA (Rothamsted partners). Additionally we will disseminate project information and findings to UK Scientific initiatives such as the UK Soil Observatory (http://www.ukso.org/) Specific academic beneficiaries are listed in the appropriate section on the JE-S form, and they will be informed of outputs in the form of a website, publications (open source where possible) and conference attendance. A project website, twitter feeds and press releases will be used to inform all beneficiaries (including the public) on the outputs from the project. The website will include short video recordings including explanations of our work, results and future applications. Key presentations and electronic outputs from workshops will be uploaded to slideshare and embededed on the project site. The CEH communications team will help to identify soil-related forward feature articles relating to these soil issues in relevant science and trade press (e.g NERC's Planet Earth, Farmers Weekly, and agricultural Journals such as John Deere's "The Furrow").


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Description Land use intensification effects on soil organic matter, microbial diversity and function was assessed at a range of field sites across the UK. The survey examined paired land use contrasts at a range of working farms, long term experiments and sites under conservation management. Landowners were asked to identify fields representing gradients of management intensity at each site, and typically included contrasts of arable versus grassland, or intensively managed versus extensively managed grasslands.

Across all sites, with the exception of long term N addition experiments, intensification reduced soil organic matter concentration in the upper 15cm of soil. This was accompanied by loss of soil microbial biomass and activity irrespective of site location, the degree of impact being highly related to impact on soil OM. In general intensification also increased soil pH and reduced soil moisture content.

Change in microbial biodiversity and functionality however was largely site specific, and therefore influenced by the local climatic and geological factors which determine native soil development as well as the contrasting land managements imposed by land owners.

The project developed and deployed a range on novel microbial assays relevant to determining change in soil functionality, including molecular assays of diversity and function; enzymatic assays and isotopic assays of microbial carbon use efficiency. It is assumed these new assays will bring about a better mechanistic understanding of how management change affect soils differently in different places. Our results confirm this, since changes in key taxa, genes and functions in response to intensification were different across soil landscape gradients, in contrast to consistent losses of C and broad activity. However consistencies were noted in the response of these metrics amongst similar management contrasts on similar soils (Malik et al, Nature Communications 2018). Similarly we have also generated novel metrics on suites of microbial taxa which respond differently to intensification across soil gradients and are working on a novel molecular portal to disseminate this information. This will likely be of use to the academic research community in building synthesis of which taxa and functions change in response to management across global soils. Additionally there is the potential to develop context specific indicators of management change of interest to both industry (eg agronomists) and in the policy arena with respect to identifying relevant indicator taxa.
Exploitation Route Modelling could be used by other RCUK projects
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

URL https://www.soilsecurity.org/u-grass/
Description Poster presentation at the SOM conference 2017 in Rothamsted 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Abstract submission and poster presentation with the title: Impact of biodiversity of microbial communities on soil respiration
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Presentation at the Research Day of the University of Aberdeen. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This was an oral presentation at the Research Day of the UNiversity of Aberdeen.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017