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Can soil restoration help in the fight against climate change?

A team of researchers from the University of Hull have been working with project partners Yorkshire Water and Future Food Solutions to understand how the application of cover crops may boost soil organic matter to deliver a range of benefits for the environment, the farmer, and wider society. Using a range of soil moisture sensors, the collection of soil cores, and laboratory techniques, the team have been assessing whether the addition of cover crops (71% oil radish, 18% gold of pleasure, 11% Placelia at 11.25 t ha -1 ) between a pea and winter wheat crop across half of a field in East Yorkshire altered soil moisture content, essential nutrient (N, P, K, NH 3) concentrations, and soil carbon when compared to the adjacent untreated field half.

The team have collected cores from across the two field zones at quarterly intervals throughout the year and have been collecting continuous soil moisture measurements at four locations on each half of the field to discern how the soil characteristics are changing as the organic matter decomposes. Preliminary results suggest that soil carbon and soil moisture both increase with the application of cover crops, while data on the retention of essential nutrients is currently being processed in the laboratory.

They will be comparing their findings on soil chemistry and moisture content to crop yields for the two field zones to assess whether the organic matter treatments stimulated an increase in productivity. Climate change is set to increase extreme weather events in the UK with agriculturally important regions like East Yorkshire likely to be affected disproportionally due to its flat and low-lying relief. Boosting soil organic matter provides a potential solution to this increasing uncertainty through improvements to soil porosity and permeability, which increase soil moisture and nutrient retention and reduce overland flows, nutrient stripping, and crop spoilage. Over time, as the soil replenishes its natural store of nutrients and increases water retention, farmers will rely less on artificial fertilisers and develop a soil that is more resilient to floods and droughts.

Ultimately, the soil will become more resilient to climate change, which will strengthen future food security, whilst also improving water quality, enhancing biodiversity, and reducing future flood risk.

Words & imagery: Dr Josh Ahmed (Postdoctoral Research Associate), Energy and Environment Institute, University of Hull