The Centre for Sustainable Cropping: A long-term platform for research and innovation

Our farmland environment is made up of a highly complex network of habitats that support an amazing diversity of plants and animals, microscopic soil organisms to farmland birds. Any changes to this intricate network of interactions can be subtle and sometimes unpredictable, so it is important we fully understand how our environment is changing over time.

CSC

You may be wondering what we can do to help? Well, at the Centre for Sustainable Cropping (CSC) near Dundee, we’re aiming to develop a cropping system that can produce high quality food, whilst still maintaining a healthy environment. This means using what we understand about ecology to work with the environment to improve the health and physical structure of the soil, minimise the losses of nutrients and chemicals from cultivated fields, and support a rich variety of farmland wildlife. With a balanced system of soil, water, plants and animals, we can, over time, reduce our reliance on chemicals to produce high crop yields and eventually, find a more sustainable way of producing food.

We are measuring the long-term effect of crop management on our environment. Established in 2009 our long term platform serves to help improve the sustainability of food production in Scotland and now, eight years on, we have learned a lot! We are using the information that we’ve gathered to refine our cropping system (how the soil, crops and environment are managed through each growing season) and improve on the level of sustainability we can achieve, while still growing highly productive and good quality crops.

The CSC is run by the James Hutton Institute and is the largest field-scale experiment at the institute, extending over 42 hectares and growing a variety of crops. It will also be the longest running experiment, since we aim to maintain the site for a minimum of 3 rotations (18+ years) to get a better understanding of the long-term impact of changes in how our crops are managed.

Our long term goal is to put together a single management package which includes looking after the soil, reducing losses of pollutants into the air and water and encouraging the diverse array of plants and insects needed to help control crop pests and diseases. We are measuring the effect of these management practices on the whole arable system, by comparing directly with standard agricultural practices.

This novel approach allows us to look at the arable environment as a whole, which means we can find out what the cost or benefit is for everything that depends on our farmland habitat, from soil micro-organisms and wild plants to crop yields and input costs.

Investment by the Scottish Government for this long term project means we can use the platform as an open research facility, providing fields, datasets and archived material for all sorts of new projects on many aspects of sustainable land management over (eventually!) many decades which will help us to get more for less through sustainable farming.

If you want to find out more or you’d like to come see our facilities for yourself then please just get in touch.

Dr Cathy Hawes

Coordinator for the Centre for Sustainable Cropping at The James Hutton Institute

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Representing SEFARI at UK Parliament

Leaving the European Union could have major repercussions on a wide range of environmental and land use concerns within Scotland, and across the whole of the UK. Whilst some of these issues may seem complex, it is increasingly recognised that SEFARI contains a wealth of expertise which can contribute to such discussions. Of course our place is not to delve into the politics, but to use our research and expertise to provide an evidence-led platform for discussion.

To this end, I was recently invited to represent SEFARI at an event in the UK Parliament, organised by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology (POST).

Davy's Blog

The meeting brought together a small number of recognised scientific experts to discuss such issues with the Houses of Commons and House of Lords committee’s subject advisers.  Representatives from the Environmental Audit; Environment, Food & Rural  Affairs; EU, Energy &Environment (Lords); European Scrutiny; Exiting the EU; Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs; Scottish Affairs; Welsh Affairs; and Women & Equalities committees were all present on the day, reflecting how integral environmental issues are to a wide range of parliamentary interests.

There are clearly a range of environmental concerns (such as addressing farmland biodiversity declines and tackling diffuse pollution at a catchment scale) which are common across the UK. But, my remit on the day was to highlight some of the additional environmental issues which were likely to be much a higher priority in Scotland, when compared to the rest of the UK.

I began by stressing that land managers have a huge role to play in helping to tackle environmental issues on behalf of wider society, and consequently it is essential that future mechanisms can appropriately support the different types of agriculture practised in Scotland. Leaving the European Union could present a real risk to the more vulnerable livestock systems in Scotland’s mountains and islands, especially those High Nature Value farming systems which cover over 40% of Scotland’s agricultural land and where the continuation of agricultural management is considered to be of high nature conservation importance. Any abandonment of farming in those areas could have a detrimental impact on the rural communities, habitats and wildlife species associated with them.

I also highlighted ambitious climate change targets as a major driver of Scotland’s environmental focus, with the Scottish Government proposing further ambitious revisions to our existing targets. Key targets include: obtaining 50% of heating, transport and electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030; to restore 250,000 ha of degraded peatlands by 2032; and a desire to markedly increase woodland cover in Scotland beyond the current 18% land cover. All these targets are aimed at reducing Scotland’s overall greenhouse gas emissions to 90% of 1990 levels by 2050 and (in recent revisions) to 56% of 1990 levels by 2020.

I was able to make the point that all these environmental issues cannot be seen in isolation from each other, and that actions to mitigate for one issue have the potential to be beneficial or have adverse impacts for other issues. That’s why there is a pressing need to understand the systems underpinning, and trade-offs associated with, any land management practice or land use change. This means landscape scale policies and practices must be designed and implemented accordingly.

The meeting was also attended by:

Sasha Leigh, Head of Policy Partnerships, who provided an overview of NERC’s new Environmental Evidence for the Future initiative which will seek to define, prioritise and address the medium- to long-term knowledge gaps in the environmental science evidence base post-Brexit;

Andy Jordan, working on political aspects of Brexit at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, who outlined a number of legislative and logistical challenges to dealing with environmental issues in the run-up to Brexit; and

Nick Wells, Centre of Ecology & Hydrology, who outlined the challenges and gaps in understanding associated with a range of cross-UK environmental issues, such as support for environmental management by farmers, achieving good ecological condition of waterbodies, addressing air pollution, ensuring biosecurity associated with plant and animal imports and maintaining and enhancing biodiversity in protected sites.

I have engaged quite a bit with MSPs in the Scottish Parliament in recent years and provided evidence a number of times to what is now the Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform Committee.  It was very interesting to be able to highlight where the Scottish environmental perspective can be quite distinctive when viewed through a UK parliamentary lens.  It was therefore very pleasing to see that SEFARI was able to bring something different to the discussions.

The meeting was a great opportunity for SEFARI, one we hope to build on as we contribute where we can to discussions around Leaving the European Union.

Davy McCracken

Professor of Agricultural Ecology and Head of Hill & Mountain Research Centre Future Farming Systems

World Environment Day – Take a Moment to Reconnect

World Environment Day, on 5 June 2017, is designated as “the United Nations’ most important day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment”. The theme for 2017 is connecting people to nature, and the UN is urging individuals to do something to take care of the Earth, or become an agent of change.

Pexel Pollution

This year, World Environment Day falls at a time when the mood around climate change has changed somewhat, particularly following the decision of President Donald Trump to seek to withdraw the United States of America from the Paris Agreement on climate change (which the USA has already ratified).

Following the announcement on 1 June 2017, the “readout” of conversations President Trump held with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, and Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom reported that President Trump:

“reiterated that the United States under the Trump Administration, will be the cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on Earth”.

In his speech, President Trump said:

“Staying in the agreement could also pose serious obstacles for the United States as we begin the process of unlocking the restrictions on America’s abundant energy reserves, which we have started very strongly.  It would once have been unthinkable that an international agreement could prevent the United States from conducting its own domestic economic affairs, but this is the new reality we face if we do not leave the agreement or if we do not negotiate a far better deal”.

The final few words are interesting, and generate the question – on what research and scientific basis will such negotiations and decisions be carried through? Significant reference was made in the speech to analysis carried out by National Economic Research Associates (NERA). There was no reference to a specific document in the speech but the most recent work published by NERA on greenhouse gas emissions was commissioned by the American Council for Capital Formulation. The small print of that work states the study “[…] does not take into account potential benefits from avoided emissions”. The US Environmental Protection Agency gives an illuminating perspective, with a snapshot from its climate change website showing content is being updated:

US EPA

In Scotland, the commitment to tackling climate change is now long-standing, but it is also recognised that as the easier actions are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so decisions required to meet our statutory targets start to become more complex. This is where science and research can play an increasingly important role.

Researchers in SEFARI (Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes) work on climate change issues every day. This includes work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and on adapting to the changing climate, and sees delivery directly to policy makers in Scotland, often through partnership with colleagues in ClimateXChange, Scotland’s Centre of Expertise on Climate.

Examples include:

  • Contributing to more efficient production systems, healthier soils and more sustainable crop rotations;
  • Understanding of crop plant genetics to breed for plants with improved disease and drought tolerance;
  • Exploring how – what is known as – “High Value Nature Farming” practices and restoration of degraded peatlands impact on improvements in biodiversity and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Exploring relationships between diet, grazing behaviour, genetics and control of infectious disease on greenhouse gas emissions, to underpin sustainable production of livestock in Scotland;
  • Supporting rural and climate policy together (e.g. efficiency and sustainability of Scottish beef industry);
  • Developing tools, techniques and best practice to allow the Scottish food and drink industry to reduce or valorise waste.
  • Analysing the relationship (supply and demand) between Scottish exports and imported products; and the implications of these on sustainability, economic growth, food supply network resilience and food security;
  • Improving measurement of greenhouse gas uptake and release in peatland/moorland ecosystems, including identification of ‘greenhouse gas hotspots’;
  • Improving understanding of impacts of management practices (such as muirburn) and changes in management (such as long-term agricultural intensification) on soil carbon sequestration;
  • Supporting innovation within Scotland’s food & drink small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) (e.g. working with Scotland Food and Drink, and the Food and Drink Federation to enhance SMEs access to research and innovation;
  • Enhancing livestock breeding approaches for improving quality, heath, welfare of animal, and reduced environmental impacts;
  • Identifying catchments and conservation areas most vulnerable to environmental change, and evaluate measures to mitigate the impacts of increasing water temperatures upon aquatic organisms;
  • Developing novel statistical techniques for detecting and predicting sudden ecological changes (tipping points), and interpreting high volumes of data from environmental sensor networks.

The SEFARI research being carried out on the topics above (and many more) is more important than it has ever been, and the challenge is to make sure it gets to the right places, at the right times, and in the right format, to best inform those who make the important decisions.

As we strive to achieve that goal, try to take a step back from the maelstrom of politics taking place this week – at a global and national level – and take some time to enjoy your own local environment! Take a deep breath…

Graeme Cook ¦ Director ¦ SEFARI Gateway

The Beauty of Roots

Roots are rarely seen, but they are important and SEFARI research delves below the surface. Roots hold plants upright and soils in place. They acquire the water and nutrients plants need to grow and, thereby, underpin terrestrial food chains and the nutrition of humans and livestock. They can also be beautiful.

To illustrate the beauty and science of roots, SEFARI sponsored a collaboration (through our Responsive Opportunity Fund) between the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR) artist in residence (Jean Duncan) and scientists at The James Hutton Institute (Philip White, Paula Pongrac, Lionel Dupuy, Glyn Bengough, Gladys Wright), Scotland’s Rural College (Ian Bingham), and the University of St Andrews (Jane Wishart) to develop an Exhibition combining living plants growing with their roots in full view, with scientific photographs, etchings and casts of roots and root structures.

Beauty of Roots Blog

Professor Philip White said “It was a wonderful experience collaborating with such creative colleagues. I think we produced an exhibition that not only illustrated, but also invigorated, our scientific studies and artistic endeavours.”

The Exhibition was held in the lobby of The Dalhousie Building, University of Dundee, in March 2017 and items from the Exhibition were subsequently displayed at the SEFARI Showcase event in the Garden Lobby at the Scottish Parliament and at Jean Duncan’s Open Studio Event in April.

The exhibitions have proved extremely popular with the public, and over 100 people so far have enjoyed both viewing the artwork and learning the science behind the beautiful roots. More pictures of the Exhibitions can be viewed on several other blogs; including The Living Field, Dundee University, Hertourage and Plantventurist.

The artist in residence Jean Duncan said “I’ve learned a great deal about the importance of roots in the past few months. The scientists in the project were extremely supportive in helping me produce my artworks and I felt privileged to have access to such a wealth of knowledge and experience, which was so willingly shared.”

There is also still plenty of time to view the artwork in person as well as it will feature at The Fascination of Plants Event at The University of Dundee Botanic Gardens on Sunday 21 May 2017; The Byre in the Botanics Programme, The Byre Theatre, St Andrews; The Scottish Natural Heritage Conference Centre at Battleby in August 2017; and The Lamb Gallery, University of Dundee, in March 2018 or if you have another venue you’d like to show the artwork at please just get in touch with us via info@sefari.scot

The SEFARI Responsive Opportunity Funds are designed to increase the visibility of the invaluable contributions the Scottish Government funded Strategic Research Programme makes towards sustainable economic growth and improving the lives of people in Scotland and beyond. The Fund supports new and collaborative knowledge exchange ideas which add value, must be inter-disciplinary, cross-institutional, be timely, and have clear stakeholder involvement, show creativity and how they can have an impact.

Professor Philip White

On SEFARI to the Emerald Isle

SEFARI has a crucial role in ensuring that the right research and expertise gets to the right people, at the right time and in the right format. This model has to deliver for policy makers, commercial interests and individuals alike – such challenges are shared the world over in the space between research and decision taking. SEFARI also has a role to better internationalise Scottish Government funded research on environment, food, agriculture and land.

While that means developing ways to take our messages beyond Scotland, it also opens up the opportunity for us to learn from others. This week we have a great example of an event which helps in both those challenges. Two key SEFARI staff, Dr Kenneth Loades, and Dr Philip Skuce are heading to Cork, Ireland, for the latest in a series of high-profile events exploring how the transformative power of science and technology can be better aligned to meet societal challenges, and how research can better underpin policymaking.

Cork 4.jpg

Dr Loades, the SEFARI Sector Lead for Soils and Crops, and Dr Skuce, the SEFARI Sector Lead for Livestock, are taking our own experiences to the table by using examples of interaction with the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. Dr Loades said “This conference gives us a platform to show what Scottish research on environment, food, agriculture and land can offer, but also gives us the chance to learn from others trying to improve how science can better underpin policymaking and scrutiny”.

The 3rd European Technology Assessment Conference will explore key issues such as:

  • Health, ageing and wellbeing;
  • Food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research and the bio-economy;
  • Secure, clean and efficient energy;
  • Smart, green and integrated transport;
  • Climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials; Inclusive, innovative and secure societies.

The conference is to be attended by a rich variety of those who carry out research in these areas, those who act as knowledge brokers, and those who require accurate and reliable research and data. This includes parliaments, governments, research institutes, universities and academies from across Europe and beyond. Dr Skuce said “We expect to learn valuable lessons on how others meet the challenges of ensuring policy makers and those with scrutiny roles have the best access to the right information and expertise. We will also learn how others measure the impact of these types of activity – all with a view to putting new ideas into practice at home”.

This trip delivers against another agenda too, perhaps one more traditionally aligned to the research areas delivered by SEFARI – the same venue, University College Cork, is also hosting an All Island Agri-Food Summit this presents the opportunity to take Scotland’s message to an Irish audience, and to learn about challenges and opportunities in the Irish context.

Graeme Cook ¦ Director ¦ SEFARI Gateway