How Can Sustainable Agricultural Practices Improve Soil Health?

Thought LeadersDr. Fiona BrennanSenior Research OfficerTeagasc

In this interview, we speak to Dr. Fiona Brennan from Teagasc, about the importance of sustainable agricultural practices and how they can help to improve soil health.

Please could you introduce yourself and tell us about your role at Teagasc?

My name is Fiona Brennan. I am a senior research officer in Teagasc (the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority), where I have responsibility for the soil microbiome research program. I am based in the Soil, Environment, and Land use department in Johnstown Castle, Wexford in the South East of Ireland.

Our focus there is on soils and environment-related research, where we conduct both fundamental and applied research on a wide range of subjects, including soil health, soil-plant interactions, biodiversity, nutrient efficiency, water quality, gaseous emissions, agroecology, and land use. My role is to lead a research team that carries out research on microbial communities in soils, plants, and within the wider environment.

Our research team aims to better understand soil and plant microbiomes, harnessing this knowledge towards the development of sustainable, resilient agricultural systems. We are currently investigating the impact of agricultural practices on soil health, microbial-soil-plant interactions, and microbial functioning, particularly with respect to the role of microbial communities in soil nutrient cycles, greenhouse gas emissions, and plant health.

We’re also interested in how climate changes are impacting soil microbial communities and how this affects the many benefits these communities bring to food production systems.

What role does Teagasc have within the food and agricultural industry?

Teagasc is a public service national body responsible for providing integrated research, advisory, and education services to the agriculture and food sectors in Ireland. We employ approximately 1,200 staff at 55 locations throughout Ireland and operate in partnership with all sectors of the agriculture and food industry and with rural development agencies.

We also have an additional ca. 270 Ph.D. and MSc Walsh Scholars who are provided with the opportunity to obtain higher-level degrees in the agri-food sector. The science we undertake is directly used as an evidence base by national and international policymakers and regulators and informs agricultural practice on the ground.

Whilst we also carry out fundamental research, our primary focus is providing applied research that is readily translatable into practical advice that can be implemented by farmers, growers, and the agri-food industry. We work closely with a large international network of scientists towards common goals and challenges.

Agriculture

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What do you believe to be some of the biggest challenges currently faced by the agricultural industry, especially regarding soil health?

Agriculture is currently facing a number of very significant challenges. Foremost among these is the necessity to develop climate-resilient agricultural systems of farming that are economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable. As we move towards carbon-neutral societies and international environmental sustainability goals, we will need to manage land in a different way.

Farmers face many challenges, including the necessity to sustain high levels of production while being able to apply less inorganic fertilizers and chemical protections to crops, all in the context of changing climatic conditions and sometimes narrow financial margins.

Soils are among the most important resources on farms, and farming for soil health will assist farmers in addressing these challenges. In terms of soil health, we have never asked so much of our soils. We need them to continue to produce food, fuel, and fiber, but also to store and sequester carbon, filter and store water, be a home for biodiversity, cycle nutrients, and be a resource for novel antibiotics and pharmaceuticals. They will be critically important in addressing both climate and biodiversity crises, and in enabling farmers to farm with reduced external inputs. They are subject to many pressures and their care is a delicate balance with food production needs.

Soil is a key component for the efficient production of food, yet many people still do not understand the importance of soil health in food production. Why is this?

Indeed over 95% of our food comes from the soil but our dependence on soil for the food we eat and for our very survival is not widely understood. Soil is often hidden from view and it is a case of out ‘Out of sight out of mind’ – we may associate crops and animals with the food we eat but not necessarily the soils that are the basis for the majority of food production.  

There is a lack of education concerning the importance of soils. Increasingly, there is also a disconnect between consumers and the production of our food, which results in a further lack of awareness of the role of soil.

At Teagasc, you have developed a national soil map called the ‘Irish Soil Information System’. Why did you carry out this project and what information does it provide?

Comprehensive knowledge of our soils, including their diversity, properties, location, and extent, is a necessity to inform land management and decision making, and national soil maps are an essential tool in this regard.

While Ireland has a history of soil surveying up until relatively recently, only 44% of the country had been mapped, and the mapping was considered inadequate for purpose in both detail and extent. Furthermore, the country had lost much of its expertise in soil survey. The Irish Soil Information System was the result of a 5-year program of work, supported by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency and Teagasc, to develop a new 1:250,000 scale national soil map, the previous version having been at a scale of 1:575,000.

The Irish Soil Information System adopted a unique methodology combining predictive digital soil mapping techniques with traditional soil survey methods. The final product, which includes new and legacy data, was launched in 2014 and has been an invaluable tool in developing solutions for sustainable land management and the agri-environment. For example, the soil map has been used as a central component of our national greenhouse gas reporting.

Soil health is our wealth

Every year, the world celebrates World Soil Day, and the theme of this year was ‘Halt soil salinization, boost soil productivity’. What is meant by this message and why is it important?

World soil day is a great opportunity to recognize and celebrate the importance of our soils. It is also a day to raise awareness of pressures that may impact soil health, and make efforts to address them. Soils face many threats and every meter of soil is of value to the health of our planet.  These include pressures such as organic matter decline, land-use change, climate change, habitat disruption and fragmentation, erosion, sealing, pollution, and compaction.

While not particularly an issue for us in Ireland, salinization of soils is a huge global threat, especially in arid or semi-arid regions. It is estimated to affect a phenomenal 833 million hectares of soil - an equivalent to 8.7% of the planet. Salinization occurs when there is an accumulation of soluble salts of sodium, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. This can occur either through natural processes or as a result of human activity, especially unsuitable irrigation practices. It causes a deterioration in soil function including a decrease in agricultural productivity, water quality, soil biodiversity, and can result in soil erosion

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an urgent call to action by all countries, encouraging a global partnership. How does soil health fit into the SGDs?

Soil health is intrinsically interlinked with the achievement of the SDG goals and specifically SDG 2 (zero hunger); SDG 3 (Health); SDG 6 (clean water and sanitization); SDG 12 (sustainable consumption and production); SDG 13 (climate action), and SDG 15 (life on land).

Soil health is also seen as a cornerstone on which to address global climate and biodiversity crises and is a key component of international global sustainability policy.

E.g. the EU has designated the enhancement and protection of soil health as one of the five most important missions in its current framework program.  

SDGs

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What impact is climate change having on soil health?

Climate change is one of the gravest threats facing soil health and amongst the key challenges of our time. Changes in precipitation patterns and mean temperature is resulting in widespread impacts on ecosystems and changes in environmental conditions across the planet. Extreme weather events (including droughts, flooding) can often result in degradation of soil through erosion, compaction desertification, and other processes, and valuable soils, and their capacity to produce food and carry out other important functions, are being lost.

With the change in environmental conditions we are likely to see changes in processes that transform carbon and nutrients, and we are likely to see losses of carbon from some soils – potentially further exacerbating the situation. The impact on soil biodiversity, one of our most important reservoirs for biodiversity, is also likely substantial.

Soil health does not only have a role within food but is also home to many organisms. Therefore, why does sustainable soil management not only have benefits for food production but biodiversity also?

Soils harbor greater than a quarter of all life on the planet, making it a globally important reservoir of biodiversity and its health of critical importance in addressing the global biodiversity crisis. Our soils are literally teeming with life, with a staggering abundance and diversity of organisms, each of them occupying specific habitats within the soil. This includes an enormous range of organism types, shapes, sizes, and lifestyles, operating at many different scales – from the microscopic to larger soil-dwelling creatures.

The biology within soil drives the majority of processes within the soil and is essential for delivering a whole range of vital ecosystem functions. Traditionally our study of soil biology, and particularly of the microbial communities that make up most of the diversity, has been limited by technological constraints but new methods have enabled us to look more deeply than ever before and revolutionized our understanding of soil biodiversity. We have much still to learn about these communities but what is increasingly clear is their protection is of vital importance to the health of our planet and for our survival.

How can people get involved and help to raise awareness surrounding soil health and World Soil Day?

There are a great many ways to get involved in world soil day and everyone is welcome to participate. You can join one of the many events (either in person or online) that are being organized all across the world or you can even organize one of your own. There will be lots of great talks, videos, and activities taking place and social media will be awash with soil health-related content.

If you’re a soils researcher you can share some of your research on soil. I also love hearing what farmers are doing to enhance the soil health on their farms.

World Soil Day

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Have you got any exciting projects upcoming at Teagasc? If so, what are they?

With solutions needed to address the very many challenges facing the agricultural sector, we’re working hard across the organization to undertake the science that will be needed to underpin the sustainable agricultural systems of the future that will support farming communities. Many exciting projects are underway. This includes the launch this year of the National Agricultural Soil Carbon Observatory, which will include a network of Eddy Covariance Flux Towers across the country that will provide accurate, long-term information on the carbon dynamics of Irish agricultural systems.

We have also recently launched the signpost farms program (collaborative program between Teagasc, farmers, industry partners, and state bodies), to lead and support the transition of Irish farming towards more sustainable farming systems, including reduced gaseous emissions, improved water quality and maintenance, the enhancement of biodiversity, and creating more profitable and sustainable farming enterprises.

In addition, we have just begun a new international soil health project, called Soilguard. This comprises twenty-five transdisciplinary project partners from seventeen countries with the aim of delivering evidence-based knowledge regarding sustainable soil management benefits for soil biodiversity and its potential to deliver ecosystem services under specific stressors derived from climate change. We have a number of projects ongoing that are assessing how diversifying crops (including utilizing mixed-species grassland swards), and reducing inorganic inputs, affect soil biodiversity and can be utilized to increase soil functioning and resilience.

What does the future of agriculture and soil health look like to you?

Agriculture is going through a period of intense transformation currently. There are many challenges to overcome but I think, with all shoulders to the wheel, they will be overcome. The agricultural systems of the future will need to marry environmental, social, and economic sustainability, and at their heart will be soil health.

Our farming systems will also need to be climate resilient and less reliant on external inputs. A wider appreciation of the value of soil, not only in producing healthy nutritious food that will sustain the human populations but of its role in biodiversity, climate regulation, nutrient cycling, water regulation and many under functions will be needed.

Farmers will need to be empowered to farm in a way that facilitates sustainable food production and planetary health while supporting rural communities.  Science will play a key role in this process.

Where can readers find more information?

Further information on the work we do in Teagasc, including our soils research is available at www.teagasc.ie

About Dr. Fiona Brennan

I completed a BSc in Environmental Biology (University College Dublin) and a Ph.D. in Soil Microbiology (National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG)) prior to holding postdoctoral research positions within Teagasc and INRA (The French National Institute for Agricultural Research). Prior to my current appointment, I was a permanent research scientist in the James Hutton Institute, Scotland, and a lecturer in Microbiology in NUI Galway.Dr. Fiona Brennan

I hold an adjunct lecturer position in NUI Galway and am a researcher within VistaMilk and APC Microbiome Ireland research centers. I am also an associate editor with both the European Journal of Soil Science and CABI Agriculture and Bioscience and on the editorial board of the European Journal of Soil Biology.

About Teagasc

Teagasc is the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority, providing integrated research, advisory, and education services to the agriculture and food industry and rural communities.

The Teagasc mission is to support science-based innovation in the agri-food sector and wider bio-economy that will underpin profitability, competitiveness, and sustainability. This is achieved through the close coupling of research and knowledge transfer in four program areas: Animal and Grassland Research and Innovation; Crops, Environment, and Land Use; Food; Rural Economy and Development. Teagasc transfers knowledge through two programs; Education and Advisory.

Emily Henderson

Written by

Emily Henderson

During her time at AZoNetwork, Emily has interviewed over 200 leading experts in all areas of science and healthcare including the World Health Organization and the United Nations. She loves being at the forefront of exciting new research and sharing science stories with thought leaders all over the world.

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