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Soil health metrics for sustainable agricultural systems

  • Full or part time
    Dr S Haefele
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, April 15, 2019
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Why is this project important?

Soil is the foundation of all agricultural systems. It is a complex biophysical system of aggregated particles and pore networks that, if managed carefully, provides plants with the medium for roots to grow and extract water and nutrients in order to produce food and fibre. In addition to agricultural production, soils provide other important functions often referred to as ecosystem services. Soils can store and transmit water and air, they can buffer pollutants and contaminants, they can store globally-important stocks of carbon, and they support biodiversity. The ability of the soil to carry out these functions is commonly referred to as ‘soil health’, making the analogy with the medical world.

However, soils are vulnerable if not managed carefully. A recent FAO report [1] lists a number of specific threats to soil: erosion, compaction, acidification, contamination, sealing, salinization, waterlogging, nutrient imbalance (deficiency and excess), and losses of soil organic carbon (SOC) and biodiversity. If realised, these threats will affect agricultural production and ecosystem services just at a time that agriculture faces two major challenges: the need to increase and secure food production for a growing population, and the unknown impacts of a changing climate. In short, agricultural soil needs to be managed carefully to achieve ‘sustainable intensification’ - increasing production whilst reducing environmental footprints - thus achieving food security, protecting ecosystem services, and increasing resilience to climate change. In England there is a commitment to achieving sustainable management of all soils by 2030 [2].

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2, ‘End hunger… and promote sustainable agriculture’ makes the specific statement that “We must improve our knowledge about the current state and trend in the condition of soil” [3]. Clearly, to achieve SDG2 and protect soils, data and metrics for soil health are urgently needed. A number of approaches to quantifying soil health now exist, but there is no agreed standard. Variation of soil in time and space is a particular problem when trying to derive a set of meaningful metrics for sustainable agricultural systems. Therefore, robust statistical methodologies must be used to assess whether soil health metrics are fit for purpose. Soil health metrics must be - (i) scientifically meaningful, rigorous, repeatable, and representative, (ii) relevant to the specific inherent (e.g. soil type, climate) and management (e.g. land use) scenario at appropriate scales, and (iii) relatable to a range of soil functions, including agricultural production and ecosystems services.

The overall aim of this Rothamsted Research – Lancaster University PhD project is to develop soil metrics that can be used to quantify and monitor soil health, as related to agricultural production and ecosystem services, and in the light of food security and climate change challenges, at scales appropriate to management.

Specifically, the PhD activities could include:

• Review and identify meaningful metrics for soil health that influence agricultural production and other ecosystem services.

• Design and implement appropriate soil sampling schemes on both commercial farms and experimental sites in the UK.

• Make measurements of soil properties relevant to soil health (physical, chemical and biological).

• Analyse data using advanced spatial statistics to quantify the dominant scales of variation in soil health metrics.

• Develop metrics for UK farmers to monitor soil health at scales appropriate for agricultural production.

• Promote knowledge exchange for the adoption of scientifically rigorous soil health metrics within the farming and agronomy industries, and, if possible with international standards organisations.

• Contribute to the debate on the complex interrelationships between food security, climate change, and soil health.

What’s in it for you?

Become an expert in the new field of soil health, evaluation and metrics of sustainable intensification. You will use a range of analytical methods (physical, chemical, biological) and apply these to both real farmers’ fields and globally-unique field experiments and sample archives. Measurements will require training in classical soil science methods and innovative dry spectroscopic techniques (VisNear-Infrared, Mid-infrared, X-ray fluorescence). Further on, you will receive training in advanced sensing techniques, sampling design, statistics and data analysis. An opportunity to work with and learn from a highly experienced supervisory team with internationally recognised expertise in soil science and ecology, biogeochemistry, agronomy, advanced spatial statistics and analytical methods.

Join an exciting research environment at Rothamsted Research. Learn transferable skills including project management, presentation approaches, scientific writing and reporting, network to influence at Rothamsted Research and Lancaster University.

For further information or informal discussion about the position, please contact Dr Stephan Haefele () or Prof Nick Ostle ().

Funding Notes

Full studentships (UK/EU tuition fees and stipend (£14,777 2018/18 [tax free]) for UK/EU students for 3.5 years or full studentships (International tuition fees and stipend (£14,777 2018/19 [tax free]) for International students for 3 years.

References

[1] FAO (2015) The Status of the World’s Soils. Technical Summary. FAO, Rome.
[2] HMG (2018) A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. Defra, London. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/25-year-environment-plan
[3] https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs



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