Could fabricated soils be the key to global food security?
Scientists are working on a ground-breaking project which could ultimately result in soils being ‘created’ as a way to ensure global food security.
Experts from the University of Plymouth are working with the world-famous Eden Project to explore how recycled and waste material could be transformed and then reused in agriculture and other sectors.
It could revolutionise the soil industry, leading to custom-made soils of varying characteristics being designed for various purposes across a range of locations and markets.
The FABsoil project is being led by Dr Mark Fitzsimons and Dr Jennifer Rhymes with funding from Agri-Tech Cornwall, a three-year £9.6 million initiative part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, with match-funding from Cornwall Council.
Every year, around 12 million hectares of cropland are lost to soil erosion globally while the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has suggested that one-quarter of the earth’s land area is highly degraded.
Dr Fitzsimons, Associate Professor (Reader) in Organic Geochemistry, said: “Soil is the root of our survival, and a key component for food security, environmental protection and as a home to wildlife. But the quality of it is constantly under threat from a range of factors, notably the intensification of agriculture and carbon loss through climate change. As populations continue to grow, we face the real prospect of a soil crisis and taking direct action now is the only way to begin to counter that issue.”
The University’s involvement in Agri-Tech Cornwall is being led by the Sustainable Earth Institute, and builds on Plymouth’s existing world-leading research reputation.
For this project, the research team has sourced a range of waste material from small businesses across the South West made up of composted green waste, clay, grit and bark.
They are currently testing a number of different artificial soil mixtures at open sites on the University campus, along with other samples that are more irrigated and controlled.
Those tests will last between 12 and 18 months, and are being run in conjunction with laboratory experiments measuring the performance of the soils, including emissions of greenhouse gases.
The goal is to develop a blueprint for making the ultimate product from recycled and waste materials, ensuring it is stable and fertile and maintaining a reservoir of slow-release nutrients to fuel plant growth without the high demand for fertiliser application.
The soils could be used in a plethora of applications, everything from landscaping and urban restoration to high-value crop production, and at sites all over the world including in developing countries.
Dr Rhymes added: “What we’re trying to do is replicate the functions of the soil, but not the soil material itself. The science community is making great strides in understanding soil and the complex interactions that occur within it, but our vision is to develop a more sustainable, self-regulating, living system that doesn’t require much subsequent management. There is, in fact, the genuine possibility that FABsoil could become more effective than our increasingly degraded soils, and that would be amazing.”
The Eden Project crafted 83,000 tonnes of fabricated soils, with these soils representing one of the longest running trials for this technology.
A world class garden has been created on this soil and working with University of Plymouth the behaviour of the soils is being tested and improvements made for future batches of soil. This work directly feeds into Eden’s overall sustainability agenda. Soil conservation and regeneration is a key interest for the Eden Project.
Dr Rachel Warmington, Leader of the Eden Rainforest Research Group, said: “Working with Mark and Jennifer has allowed us to critically review our fabricated soils, informing the choices we make for our soil recipes and how we manage the Eden soils. Fabricated soils have huge potential for repairing agricultural landscapes and particularly in urban food production.”
Agri-tech Cornwall Project Director Robin Jackson added: "In the UK, farmers are increasingly recognising that soil is one of their most vital assets. Sadly, much has been already been degraded or lost – so the prospect of 'creating' soils could be a potential game-changer for agriculture, as well as for other industries.
"Alongside the wealth of vision and experience of the University of Plymouth and the Eden Project, we're keen to involve more Cornish companies as partners, so would like to hear from those operating in the agricultural, mining, construction, waste and logistics sectors. This is a great opportunity to develop new products and services centred around this pioneering work."