Geoff Squire

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.

Coexistence and ecological biosafety of two GM crops in Europe

The three-year, EU-funded project SIGMEA combined skills from many disciplines to examine the biological, environmental, agronomic, economic and legal issues that determine whether GM and non-GM crops can feasibly be grown in the same agricultural landscape. Its conclusions differed for the two crops that have been most widely studied.

Map of field patterning in a study of cross pollination - provided by Enric Mele, SpainSIGMEA reported mainly on coexistence, but also on ecological biosafety. Coexistence refers to the need to separate, in the food production chain, different types of crop, such as those that have been developed with or without genetic modification. While zero impurity of one type of crop in another is impossible to guarantee, the EU had set a threshold of 0.9% GM content for produce that can be labelled as GM-free.

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).

New directions in the Living Field project

SCRI’s widely respected educational project on the public understanding of science, established with charitable grants of £100k, now provides a range of IT aids, a demonstration garden, all-weather facilities and a study centre. It plans expansion to reach a wider public, while keeping its roots in the excitement of discovery.

Photograph of artist in residence Ronnie Forbes and helper - from the Living Field collectionThe idea of the Living Field project arose in 2001 out of a series of SCRI roadshows, in which scientists met the public in hands-on demonstration and discussion of biodiversity, gene flow, new crops and biological aliens. We learnt there were many people who wanted to know about the fields, food, crops, soil and ecosystems of the arable lowlands, but that roadshows alone would not reach enough people. The Living Field therefore looked to reach a wider audience. A small grant in 2002 allowed us to appoint a first Living Field officer working one day a week, and then to host the secondment of a teacher to SCRI to plan and develop materials. From then it grew.

New ecological patterns from the GM crop trials (FSEs) database

Two scientific papers on food webs and species-accumulation offer new approaches to GM risk assessment and post-commercial monitoring

Image showing sites for spring-sown crops in the FSEs - beet (blue), maize (red), oilseed rape (yellow)The world's largest GM field trials - the Farm Scale Evaluations of GM herbicide-tolerant crops, the FSEs - brought more than £6M of government funding to the study of arable ecosystems. A consortium of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Rothamsted Research and SCRI conducted the trials between 1999 and 2005 on more than 250 sites. The results have had wide influence on crop biotech policy in the UK and Europe. The basic comparisons of the effect of GM and non-GM cropping on biodiversity were published in around 15 papers to refereed journals including Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Nature, Biology Letters, Proceedings of the Royal Society and the Journal of Applied Ecology. The trials also established an unrivalled database of arable biodiversity and field management that continues to provide a rich seam for mining and analysis.

Seedbanks of arable east Scotland 2007

The lack of a baseline on which to assess differences between farming preferences and soil types necessitated this extensive study of seedbanks in representative fields in the east of Scotland from Moray, through Aberdeenshire, Angus, Fife and the Lothians to the Borders. Soil samples were collected in 2007 from more than 100 fields. The aims were to see whether seedbanks differed in relation to soil, latitude, crop rotation and management inputs. The information will contribute as a reference and baseline along with data on soil physical and microbiological properties, vegetation, agronomy and yield as part of the RERAD workpackage on Sustainable Crop Systems.

The methodology, using the emergence method,  was similar to that used in the FSEs. Soil samples were taken by field teams from SCRI and SAC and laid out in trays in the glasshouses at SCRI in Dundee. The first flush of seedlings, mainly of spring-germinators and generalist species was measured for several months after sampling. In the autumn of 2007, the soil in each tray was remixed and emergence was again measured, this time capturing the autumn-germinators. The advantage of this substantive database is the wide range of associated measurements, much more than in the FSEs, that should enable us to quantify the seedbank's dual role of weed burden and base of the arable food web.

Set aside experiments 1989-1997

Field experiments on set aside were funded by the UK government and managed by ADAS at Boxworth, Drayton, Gleadthorpe, and High Mowthorpe between 1989 and 1997. Each site consisted of replicated small plots on which a range of set aside treatments, including natural regeneration and various sown covers, were established for five years, after which most of the plots returned to arable cropping. Several plots remained in arable cropping throughout the period as a comparator.

SCRI's contribution was initiated by Harry Lawson, now retired, and consisted of measuring the seedbank by the extraction method at the beginning, after the five years of set aside and after two further years following return to arable cropping. The experiment demonstrated the strong effect of local conditions on the arable seedbank, notably that the seedbank can be amplified or suppressed by the management imposed largely irrespective of the species present. The results contributed to the understanding of the seedbank's role as both the weed burden and the arable plant biodiversity.

Contact: Geoff Squire

The FSEs (the UK's GM crops trials) 1999-2005

All seedbank measurements in the FSEs were carried out by SCRI using the emergence method applied to soil sampled from the 250 or so sites used in the experiment by field staff from CEH, Rothamsted Research and SCRI.

The method was developed in 1999 on three spring and four winter oilseed rape sites. On the basis of these initial measurements, the group estimated that differences of 1.5- to 2- fold in seedbank density between treatments would be detected from around ten samples of each one litre of soil from each treatment (half field). In the event, the estimates proved correct.

From 2000 onwards, a baseline sample was taken before the treatments were applied at each of the 250 sites, and repeat samples from the same locations 12 and 24 months later. At the height of activity in 2001, thousands of trays containing soil were spread throughout several large cubicles in glasshouses equipped with temperature control and shading. In all, SCRI's seedbank records in the FSE comprise the largest arable seedbank survey in the UK.

The Talisman low input experiments 1990-1996

TALISMAN was series of experiments funded by the UK government and managed by ADAS at High Mowthorpe, Drayton and Boxworth between 1990 and 1996. Each site consisted of replicated small plots in which crops of cereals and breaks were grown at full and half doses of herbicides, fungicides, insect pesticides and fertiliser.

SCRI's contribution was initiated by Harry Lawson, now retired, and consisted of measuring the seedbank in high and reduced herbicide plots. The seedbank was measured by the extraction method from cores of soil taken before the treatments were applied and after three and six years. In some reduced herbicide treatments, the seedbank increased more than 100-fold after the six years. Treatments and sites were compared in terms of seedbank community parameters derived from species-accumulation and similar devices. The results contributed to the understanding of the seedbank's role as both the weed burden and the arable plant biodiversity.

Papers and reports

Squire, G.R., Roger, S., Wright, G. 2000. Community-scale seedbank responses to less intense rotation and reduced herbicide input. Annals of Applied Biology 136, 47-57. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-7348.2000.tb00008.x

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.

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