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

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

Showtime!

Or at least Showcase Time…

We’re beginning to get a little paranoid at SEFARI HQ. On the day of our first significant set-piece, our launch event, Article 50 was triggered, signalling the start of the formal process for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. On the day of our second major set-piece, a research showcase event, the Prime Minister called for a general election!

The showcase event was a celebration of SEFARI research and delivery. Taking place in the magnificent surroundings of the Garden Lobby in the Scottish Parliament this was an opportunity to explore, with Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and guests, the rich seam of research delivered on food, land, environment and agriculture by the six Research Institutes who make up SEFARI.

The tone for the evening was set by our sponsor for the event, David Stewart MSP (pictured). He explained that science and research had been the foundation for much work he had carried out during his time as an elected representative in both the UK and Scottish Parliaments. In particular he highlighted the issue of diabetes, on which he has long campaigned.

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The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, in delivering a keynote address, referred back to her launching of SEFARI, up Castelaw Hill in the Pentlands. She talked how she experienced, first-hand, how the right experts can help understanding of a landscape – in that case in the context of the vital topic of climate change.

Professor Peter Morgan, as Executive Chair of SEFARI, outlined that whilst the six Research Institutes which make up SEFARI had always worked together, the establishment of SEFARI brings a renewed clarity of purpose and function to the work of all the Institutes.

Graeme Cook, Director of SEFARI Gateway, responsible for improving how SEFARI research gets used, asked those present to take a stake in what SEFARI is able to deliver – and so share in how successful the work of SEFARI can be – how can we really make best use of the immense resource of knowledge and expertise we have on our doorstep?

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All the speeches had clear threads running through them – that good research, targeted well, in the right format, and well-timed, is vital for policy development, scrutiny, business and improved individual choices. From that comes a clear challenge – how to make it more accessible and useful. Onto that challenge…

Andrew Kelloe ¦ Research and Communications Officer¦ SEFARI