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FoodBioSystems DTP - Do cover crops increase the resilience and sustainability of the agri-food system?

Project Description


Our climate is changing, and our population is growing, but the soils upon which we need to grow food to feed the growing population are degraded. There are several conservation agriculture tools available to farmers to sustainably intensify agricultural systems, but we do not know if these tools embed resilience against future environmental threats. Cover crops (crops grown between cash crops in an arable rotation to provide environmental benefits) are one such tool that enables farmers to increase the diversity of plants on their farm. Cover crops, typically grown over the winter when the soil would otherwise be bare, ensure that carbon enters the soil to feed the soil biology all year round.

In this 4-year PhD project you will investigate whether mixtures of cover crops comprising plants from different plant families increases soil health and engineers a soil microbial community that is more resilient to extreme weather than the sum of the parts of the mixture. You will manage a field-plot experiment at the University of Reading experimental farm and install chambers on the plots to warm soils and simulate future climate scenarios (e.g. warmer winters and summer heatwaves). You will make measurements on the plots to identify the abundance and diversity of soil organisms (ranging from bacteria and fungi to microarthropods and earthworms). You will then undertake laboratory experiments using soils taken from the plots of the field experiment. These experiments will make use of new laboratory equipment to make high frequency measurements of soil respiration and its response to simulated stresses (e.g. heat stress, wet/dry cycles, pollution stress). These measurements will enable you to quantify the resilience of the soil. You will also co-ordinate a network of farmers to establish similar field trials across the UK to test your hypotheses on different soil types by making basic measurements in plots periodically. These farms will then be used as a platform to share your findings with the farming community.

You will join a large and diverse research group comprising PhD students, postdoctoral researchers, and research technicians and work as part of a cohesive multidisciplinary team to provide the science underpinning the management of our soils in the 21st century. You will be expected to participate in team activities and support other team members by sharing your skills and knowledge. You should expect to receive commensurate support from other team members. In particular, you will work alongside scientists on the DIVERSE project (DIVerse crop residues Engender Resilience of Soil functions and Ecosystem services).

Training opportunities:

You will receive bespoke one-to-one training in established laboratory techniques (e.g. phospholipid fatty acid analysis, soil microbial biomass, enzyme assays) and, depending on your prior experience, join training courses on Working with Soil in the Field, Quantitative Analysis of Environmental Data, Laboratory Analysis of Soil, and Earthworm and Microarthropod identification. You will also attend training provided by the Reading Researcher Development Programme and the Cranfield Doctoral training network to provide you with the essential skills in academic writing, presentation, research data management and public engagement.

Student profile:

We seek a student with a BSc (and preferably an MSc) in Environmental Science, Agriculture, Physical Geography, Biological Science, or similar, with a good knowledge of soils and farming. Laboratory skills and fieldwork experience are essential. Experience communicating science to non-scientists (particularly farmers) is desirable. A driving license is desirable. We particularly encourage applications from female, BAME and LGBTQ+ candidates.

Funding Notes

This project is part of the FoodBioSystems BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP), it will be funded subject to a competition to identify the strongest applicants. Due to restrictions on the funding, this studentship is only open to UK students and EU students who have lived in the UK for the past three years.

The FoodBioSystems DTP is a collaboration between the University of Reading, Cranfield University, Queen’s University Belfast, Aberystwyth University, Surrey University and Brunel University London. Our vision is to develop the next generation of highly skilled UK Agri-Food bioscientists with expertise spanning the entire food value chain. We have over 60 Associate and Affiliate partners. To find out more about us and the training programme we offer all our postgraduate researchers please visit View Website.

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