SA Soil Symposium report

Last month, the Soil Association lived up to its name and organised a two-day Symposium in Coventry, addressing this central and highly relevant topic. ORC staff Anja Vieweger and Roger Hitchings attended and report on the event.

Welcomed by SA’s Chief Executive Helen Browning, the sold-out conference room at the Coventry Transport Museum was introduced by Luca Marmo, Head of Soil Sector in DG Environment, to the future targets and constraints of the European Commission regarding soil. He described for example the aims of the seventh Environment Action Programme (2012-2020) and the difficult process of finding agreement on the EU proposal of the soil strategy directive among member states.

He was followed by Professor Carlo Leifert, outlining the challenges of food security and sustainable intensification for a rapidly growing world population. Comparing conventional and organic agriculture, he stated that additional inputs (mineral fertilisers, pesticides, research, etc.) in conventional agriculture are not able to substantially increase international yields anymore, and prices for these inputs will rise dramatically in the coming decades; seeing for example the rapidly decreasing Phosphorus reserves. As a promising alternative he underlined the importance of recycling organic waste, both of agricultural and domestic origin (a resource with high availability in the coming decades/centuries), and the great potential to increase yields of organic production through increased research in breeding, crop protection or suitable varieties.

Dr Elizabeth Stockdale of the Newcastle University presented new research results on soil microorganisms and their ability to persevere in undesirable soil conditions in a sort of “dormant state”, sometimes over years, and become active again when conditions improve; such as nutrient availability or optimal organic matter content.

Dan Carpenter of the Natural History Museum went on introducing the audience to the Earthworm species found in the UK and during a short workshop he provided instructions for their identification. He underlined their importance and described optimal conditions; such as minimum disturbance (e.g. no-dig), improvement of organic matter content or the provision of refuge areas (hedge rows, field margins etc.).

Sessions on very specific topics were spilt up and discussed in smaller groups, one for example addressing the potentials and practicalities of Biochar/Charcoal in organic production. Dr Saran Sohi and Jim Hammond from the UK Biochar Research Centre showed their newest results and Pete Dollimore of Hankham Organics talked about his experience of testing Biochar and different growing media on his own farm; reporting increased growth through the application of Biochar in early development stages of lettuce.

Another group discussed the benefits and methods of compost use and production. Professor Michael Raviv from the Agricultural Research Organisation of Israel described the optimal methods and conditions, to not only produce healthy and nutritious compost, but also how to increase its suppressive properties against plant pathogens.

In other groups, Martin Davies clarified the Soil Association standards concerning anaerobic digestion and Anna Becvar and Will Llewellyn discussed the different applications and costs of setting up a digestor on a smaller scale. John Tucker of the Woodland Trust and James Grischeff of Natural England highlighted the importance of trees in the agricultural landscape and their role of filtering run-off water as well as air pollutants coming from livestock farms for example. Stephen Briggs of Abacus Organic Associates shared his experience with Agroforestry and how his apple trees access resources in a new dimension; growing higher and rooting deeper, extracting nutrients in soil layers that are not reached by his cereal crops – a new opportunity to increase productivity on organic farms.

Many more highly interesting talks were given during the two days, and with heads buzzing of all the new inputs, ideas and shared experiences the organisers should be congratulated for this very successful and informative event!

More information can be found on the Soil Association website.

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