Paul Hallett

The baseline

Essential to any conceptual or predictive study of a 'system' is a reference  to real examples of its state and dynamics. Concepts and models should consider how the past has given rise to the present before they can can hope to predict how the present can be the basis of a sustainable future. At the beginning of this study, there was little systematic information at the scale of the field on either present or past states.

Historical trajectories

The condition of soil and farming in the past is not well documented. The major surveys of soil and vegetation provide useful background but are too infrequent. The main systematic source of data is the June Agricultural Census from which the areas grown with different crops and grass can be collated. Ten areas, defined by groups of parishes, shown circled in red in the map to the left, were selected as covering most types of farming within the arable-grass system. The Scottish Government provided data on cropped areas in each group, as electronic files from 1982 and as scanned paper documents before that. Other sources are being used to complement the information from the June census, notably surveys of pesticides and fertilizer.

Maths, modelling and quantitative biology

The diverse group of modellers and mathematical biologists in EPI has now reached critical mass with some 15 in-house researchers and students. They direct a range of concepts and tools to questions in systems biology, at scales of organ, individual and community, and in applications as diverse as plant-plant sensing, multi-trophic interactions, ‘industrial’ genotypes and GM coexistence policy.

Modelling and various mathematical approaches now permeate much of the science and some of the applications in EPI. A common and defining feature of the work is the exploration of 'the individual' in 'the system', in which the interactions among individual organisms, organs or cells give rise to emergent properties not predictable from the characteristics of the individuals themselves. Biologists, modellers and software developers combine their skills to address central and essential challenges in modern biology. The examples below are of current work (main funders in parenthesis).

Threats to our soils in a changing climate

Soil scientists at SCRI join a UK-wide consortium of research institutes and universities in a new £100k project to assess the effects of climatic change on threats to soil

Image of the cover of the RASE reportA report last year by the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) emphasised the threat of soil structural degradation from current agricultural practices. Eight 'key threats to soil' were identified at a European level: 

  • organic matter decline 
  • erosion
  • compaction
  • salinisation
  • landslide
  • sealing
  • contamination
  • declining biodiversity.

These threats are causing problems now but they might worsen if rainfall patterns and other climatic factors continue to change. Prolonged wet weather, for instance, will limit the growth of roots due to lack of oxygen (hypoxia) and limit the window of opportunity for soil cultivation or harvest.

Clone of Sustainability Research Platform at Balruddery Farm

A new experimental research platform is being established at Balruddery Farm for long-term studies on arable sustainability.Photograph of a poppy field

The overall goal is to test whether or not potential solutions for sustainable agriculture arising from the current RERAD workpackages, actually result in improved arable biodiversity, resilience, crop productivity and yield stability at a commercial, field-scale over at least four rotation cycles (>20 years).

To do this, we will design a sustainable cropping system based on existing research at SCRI that optimises inputs, yield, biodiversity and ecosystem processes. The effect of this ‘sustainable’ system on long-term trends in yield and system health will be tested by comparison with current commercial practice.

Plant–Soil Interactions

Soil is a vital resource to humanity and is fundamental to most of the world’s food production. Scotland is blessed with some of the most productive soils on earth, so as climate changes and water is depleted in more susceptible countries, food demand from our limited land area will increase considerably. The economic benefits could be enormous, but this will be against several threats. More marginal land with poorer soils will be brought into production. Energy prices will drive lower inputs. Unsustainable farming practices of the past will need to be reversed. Climate change will increase the frequency of extreme weather events.

These challenges form the basis of our scientific research in the Plant-Soil Interactions Programme. A cross-disciplinary team of root biologists, ecologists, molecular biologists, physicists and soil management experts work across SCRI with an aim to maximise the positive interactions between plants and their soil environment. Our major research areas, UK and global research partners, and outreach activities are summarised below.

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