Advancing farming systems through an enhanced mechanistic understanding of nutrient use efficiency, productivity and resilience from soil to food product.



Saturday, April 1, 2017 - 13:15


5 years


Soil to Nutrition is predicated on the premise that identification of the key processes determining nutrient use efficiency, productivity and resilience across food production systems, from soil to landscape, will provide the key mechanistic indicators necessary to direct interventions for sustainable intensification of future farming systems at the field, farm and landscape scales.

Farming systems constitute inherently complex interactions between a large number of interconnected physical, biological and chemical processes that are all subject to substantial natural variation. Management practises and interventions, aimed at specific goals related to performance, productivity and resilience of the system, face the continual challenge of having to acquire sufficient timely information on the performance and interaction of component parts. The role of science in this endeavour is to provide evidence for the mechanistic basis underlying key processes so that data about farming systems can be interpreted to recommend the appropriate interventions with predictable outcomes. This ISPG focusses on the delivery of an enhanced mechanistic understanding of the confluent processes that drive nutrient flows through farming systems. By achieving this goal, S2N will facilitate a more sustainable farming future by reducing reliance on non-renewable resources, enhancing yields of higher quality crops and decreasing environmental impact.


Sustainable agriculture is reliant on efficient flows of nutrients from soil through plants and into animals (including humans either directly or via livestock).

The S2N programme will advance farming systems through an enhanced mechanistic understanding of nutrient use efficiency, productivity and resilience (which we define as Effective Nutrient Use; ENU) from soil to food product (grain and meat). Alternative scenarios for management across scales from rhizosphere to landscape will be tested for current and future delivery of sustainable crops and livestock. Previous attempts to develop metrics of sustainability (e.g. carbon footprint) have failed to deliver an operational implementation of Sustainable Intensification (SI) on farms. We argue that the fundamental reason for this is the failure to identify a common currency that links together the different factors that contribute to efficient, productive and resilient agricultural systems, and that the lack of a resulting synthesis is a major barrier to informing the management of the interconnected risks that is required for SI. These factors include soil type, weather patterns, genetics (seeds and livestock), water, nutrients, pest management, biodiversity, and landscape hydrology. S2N’s approach in developing ‘fit-for-purpose’ sustainability metrics will be different because we will use nutrient flow (including water) as the currency that links these factors together in an operational framework for attaining SI. The dynamics of flow and partitioning of nutrients in the production system not only determine efficiency, productivity and resilience, but are also fundamental to identifying optimised management interventions as well as being amenable to routine on-farm quantification.

The use of the heavily instrumented farm platforms at Rothamsted provide a globally unique opportunity to test hypotheses, and to identify from the plethora of potential metrics the most parsimonious and practical subset. This will deliver a new set of multi-scale sustainability metrics to inform bespoke adaptive and iterative management that is tailored to individual farm types, within the wider landscape context, to support the realisation of UK agriculture’s full potential to deliver SI. The programme has three main work packages:

Work Package One:  Optimising nutrient flows and pools in the soil-plant-biota system, Lead: Dr. Stephen M Haefele

To understand the microscale processes and mechanisms underlying sustainable soil systems and the yield gap at the plant scale, in order to provide targets for optimisation that will guide adaptive management at the field- and farm-scale. This will improve the flow of nutrients between soil and plant with the aim of enhancing yield, developing soil health, and managing environmental flows and emissions.

Work Package Two: Adaptive management systems for improved efficiency and nutritional quality, Lead: Dr Laura Cardenas

 Modelling and management of nutritional stocks and flows through improved understanding of G×E×M at the whole-farm level which govern the trade-offs between the efficiency, resilience and productivity of farms, with the aim of optimising nutritional quality of food and minimising risk to the environment. This will deliver ‘fit-for-purpose’ metrics of sustainability at the farm scale, subject to landscape scale context.

Work Package Three: Sustainable intensification – optimisation at multiple scales Lead: Prof. Adie Collins

Development of a predictive platform to quantify how processes that connect plant-scale mechanisms to farm management link to the effective functioning of environmental and food systems at the landscape scale to deliver sustainability of UK agriculture. This objective will work with strategic partners to develop an SI hub at Rothamsted that integrates across all three pillars of SI: production, environment and society.




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  • Agricultural Industries Confederation -David Caffall 
  • AHDB - Liz Genever 
  • Aleff Group - Julian Hilton 
  • BASF - Rob Gladwin 
  • China Agricultural University - Fusuo Zhang 
  • CIAT Kenya - Deborah Bossio 
  • CIEL -Nick Major 
  • DEFRA - Victor Aguilera 
  • Duchy College - Robin Jackson 
  • Germinal Holdings - Paul Billings 
  • IBERS - Mike Gooding 
  • Kansas State University - Charles Rice 
  • LEAF - Caroline Drummond 
  • McDonald’s Restaurant - Peter Garbutt 
  • Mole Valley Farmers - Hugh Frost 
  • National Beef Association - Chris Mallon 
  • National Sheep Association - Phil Stocker 
  • CEH - Richard Pywell
  • NFU - Minette Batters
  • North Wyke Research Advisory Group - Malcolm Crabtree 
  • NSF - Simon Davis 
  • Ohio State University - Rattan Lal 
  • Roslin Institute - David Hume
  • Sainsbury’s - Sue Lockhart
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council - Winfried Kockelmann 
  • Silage Solutions Ltd - Dave Davies 
  • Soil Association - Liz Bowles 
  • Stabiliser Cattle Company - Duncan Pullar
  • University of Bristol -Richard Evershed 
  • University of Nottingham - Martin Broadley