18 March 2024

Soil health is related to its interaction with roots


In the UK, scientists and farmers are collaborating to monitor and evaluate soil-root interactions. Their goal is to increase productivity and improve soil health

by Matteo Cavallito


Creating of a research platform that allows farmers to more accurately monitor and evaluate the interactions between soil and plant roots in addition to their effects on the microbiome and soil structure itself. That is one of the goals of the TRUTH (Thriving Roots Underpinning Total soil Health) project funded by the U.K. Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Data collection is behind the development of a new system to detect the biological “signature” of soil, explains a statement released by researchers at the John Innes Centre who will work alongside farmers during the initiative. The program, worth £1 million, will run for three years.

Soil degradation costs £1.2 billion a year

“Soil degradation currently costs England and Wales £1.2bn every year, but few tools have been developed to measure soil and root health and how they interact,” writes The Scottish Farmer newspaper, quoting an estimate from a study published in late 2015 by a group of scientists at Cranfield University in Bedford, U.K.

The research at the time attributed nearly half of the total costs to loss of soil organic content (47 percent of the total figure), and the remainder to compaction (39 percent) and erosion (12 percent).

Some more recent data are no less worrisome. Last year, a report by NRM Laboratory, the UK’s largest independent provider of agronomic and environmental analysis serving industry, for example, showed a problematic picture. Indeed, according to the experts, who had conducted thousands of cores across the country, two-thirds of the UK’s agricultural soils showed signs of degradation. And in particular a deficit of key nutrients.

A sensor to measure microbial diversity

The TRUTH project, explains a statement published by several specialized websites, will bring two key innovations. First, it will be based on the use of an innovative sensor capable of measuring microbial diversity and the ratio of fungi to bacteria. Second, it will lead to the creation of a “Root Rangers Platform,” an online space for sharing soil and root health analysis tools validated during the project by participating farmers.

Researchers stated two goals: they want to increase productivity and improve soil health thus educing, in thos way, the reliance on synthetic inputs.

In addition to the John Innes Centre, the program involves several players. BOFIN (British On-Farm Innovation Network), for example, is leading on farmer engagement for the project. PES Technologies developed the sensor. CHAP, a government-funded organization, brings together scientists, farmers, businesses and other stakeholders and manages the project. Finally, the University of Nottingham will be in charge of assessing soil and root health.

Scientists and farmers working together

“The farmer-led collaboration hopes to test and confirm desirable traits that rely on the interactions between crops and soil, and lead to a better understanding of these interactions,” the John Innes Centre statement explains. “The datasets resulting from the soil microbiome and root and soil structure analysis will enable the further development of the soil sensor as a tool for farmers to monitor key soil health parameters.”

In addition, the John Innes Centre “will provide heritage wheat varieties from the Watkins landrace collection held by the Germplasm Resources Unit, selected for their capacity to control microbial transformation of nitrogen in soil and enhance the plant uptake and use efficiency.”

Experts will work alongside farmers conducting experimental trials on their farms with the goal of identifying the tools needed to analyze crop roots and quantify the impact of their farming method. Soil samples will be subjected to sequencing and analysis to provide “a microbiome fingerprint for the different trials.”