Traffic lights and an MOT could save Britain’s soils

Thursday, 6 June 2019

To help improve British soils, a system akin to traffic lights and an MOT is in development as part of an Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) research partnership.

Using a red, amber and green graded framework to monitor soil-health indicators, a scorecard is being trialled at six long-term research farms across Britain. Results in red need growers to stop and investigate, while green means continue to monitor.   

A simpler soil MOT is being trialled and validated, to guide farmers and growers as they check their land. It provides a guide to carry out nutrient analysis, an earthworm count and a visual evaluation, while measuring soil pH levels as well as organic matter content. They can then understand whether their soil is healthy and what work needs to be done. 

The two-part system draws on more than 30 years’ of insight. However, it takes up to 100 years to form just two to three centimetres of soil, with Britain having more than 700 different soil types, home to 27 species of earthworm.

Our Resource Management Scientist Amanda Bennett, said: “Britain’s soil is the food production engine to fuel our growing population. However, it needs nutrients and maintenance to keep it running well. That’s difficult when there are so many different soil-types and conditions across the country – knowing what supports growth and keeps the land healthy becomes more of a challenge.

"Just like our transport network, our farmers and growers can be helped by a colour coded system so they have confidence to continue, or know when they need to stop and try a different method. Organic matter is contained within soil and it’s more than half carbon, so carrying out a check similar to an MOT will help farmers to fuel growth, lock-up carbon and protect our environment while they produce food.

“The ultimate goal in developing this is that anyone should be able to follow a simple method to better understand the condition of soils in their fields or even their garden, and identify areas where they can make improvements, if required.”

The work has been carried out as part of the multifaceted GREATSOILS programme where almost £6 million* funding has been already been committed to soil research partnerships. 

Amanda added: “Our on-farm research trials, which are developing the information for the soil traffic lights, are currently looking at molecular techniques such as DNA testing to develop increased knowledge of soil biology alongside the more traditional soil health measurements. This a more technical system to help us shape a measurement which farmers and growers can use no matter where they are based.”

The soil MOT will be launched when feedback from farmers and growers has been received, allowing time for crop rotation and treatments to be measured.

To see the latest version of the soil scorecard ‘traffic light’ and to find out how to measure soil organic matter visit our GREATSOILS page