Newly developed health measure also a good predictor of carbon storage

  • 10
  • JUL
  • 2020

Scientists led by Rothamsted Research have developed an easy to use ‘soil health’ measure that shows for the first time that 38% of arable soils in England and Wales are degraded.

This is compared with less than 7% of grassland and woodland soils being given the same rating. 

Developed from the findings of a number of European studies, their index classifies soils by the proportion of organic matter versus clay that they contain, and is a good predictor of how much carbon they can take up and store – vital in the fight against climate change – as well as a general indicator of how well they are functioning.

The data behind the index is based on more than 3,800 soils collected between 1978 and 1983 as part of a national soil survey, and according to lead author and PhD student, Jonah Prout, changes in soil carbon take time - so the message of these results is likely to still apply today.

“Soil carbon is vital for the proper functioning of soil, but its absolute value alone is not always a true reflection of a soil’s health due to the very varied nature of different soils.

“By analysing a wide range of soils from across England and Wales, we were able to test this index as an indicator of soil structure – of key importance to soil functioning - and a measure of whether a soil needs improving.”

The ratings are largely independent of climate, soil type or the type and amount of vegetation growing on it. This provides a true indication of the status of the soil, he added. 

The newly developed index is based on two routinely taken soil measurements and could be easily established for any field in England and Wales, which could help farmers or policymakers improve the natural services soils provide, such as food production, flood protection and carbon storage. 

Arable soils become degraded through regular ploughing, when not enough organic matter is added, and in some case when soil organic matter is washed away. 

Co-author, Professor Steve McGrath said: “Previously no one could tell you what a good level of organic matter for a particular soil was. An index allows farmers and other land managers to determine how best to manage their land – where to grow, where to treat, and where to build - depending on the state of their soil. 

“There are various ways to improve a soil, but to do so, we first need to know which ones need what help. This measure is an easy way to do so.” 

The index is calculated by measuring the proportion of soil carbon to soil clay, with samples then categorised based on this value as ‘very good’, ‘good’, ‘moderate’ or ‘degraded’. 

Soils where there is at least 13 times more clay than carbon are rated as degraded, whilst those with less than 8 times the amount of clay compared to carbon are regarded as very good. 

On this scale, soil from 38.2% of arable, 6.6% of grassland, and 5.6% of woodland sites were in the poorest conditions.

Having looked at the picture across England and Wales, Mr Prout says the next step is to look at a later survey and long-term experiment data to see how the index values have changed over time.

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
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About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.