Soil health has become widely recognised as an underpinning characteristic of sustainable agriculture. However, the biological component of soil remains poorly understood in an applied context and the complexity makes it too big of a challenge for one organisation or farm to address. This gap in understanding is a barrier to progress in soil health and is gaining more attention in the industry over the importance of maintaining and developing a species rich, complex and diverse soil biological community.
Standard soil tests focus on analysing the physical and chemical properties of soil and not biology. This is because a teaspoon of soil has more microorganisms than there are people on the planet – which makes the process hugely complicated. However, high throughput sequencing, metagenomics and metabarcoding can be used to analyse soil samples to describe the diversity of microbial populations.
With the launch of the Big Soil Community, Fera is taking a novel approach to the way one of the big challenges to sustainable agriculture is overcome – by coordinating a community effort to sample and analyse the biodiversity of our soil microbial communities at scale, in a cost-effective and timely manner. Unpicking the complexity of soil biology will provide insight into the contribution and promise that these communities offer soil health and sustainable agriculture.
The project will catalogue the results and provide farmers with reports of the findings – examining a) the biodiversity of the sampled microbial community and b) an anonymised benchmark of all Big Soil Community samples on a system by system basis.
A recent report for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), by Fera scientist, John Elphinstone, on methods of assessing soil microbial communities has enabled a suitable approach to biological soil sampling and has helped to form a scientific foundation for the project.
The campaign is being launched at Cereals 2018. Over the next three months, farmers will be invited to sign up to the project so that by September sampling can begin. Individual and summary reports are being supplied in December and a full publication of results in January.
Farmers taking part will receive:
• A report providing a rich picture of the biodiversity of their microbial communities, specifically populations of bacteria and funghi.
• The tools to benchmark their results against the wider Big Soil Community; providing insight into the impact of soil management, crop rotations and farm system.
• The data will give farmers a chance to re-examine their farming practices and potentially implement measures that will help them to improve the health of their soil.
The larger the testing community, the lower the cost to the farmer. The pricing model allows this due to cost efficiencies when more samples are tested. Currently, the cost to have a sample analysed is expected to be £250 but this will decrease as more farms join the study.Fera is also engaging with supply chain organisations, retailers and farming groups on the project – retailers, for instance, will be able to gain an understanding of the soil health of their growers against the wider benchmark.