An initiative launched this year by Fera is set to produce a major leap forward in the understanding of the UK’s soil health – and support the nation’s farmers in the process

The Big Soil Community aims to break down the complexity of soil biology and develop an applied knowledge-base which will support farmers in unlocking the potential of soil health.

In June 2018, Fera extended an open invitation to farms across the UK, inviting them to join the Big Soil Community and participate in a coordinated sampling programme for analysis of soil microbial communities. This programme will provide a rich benchmark of soil biodiversity at scale – something which has never before been available.

The results – which are expected by the end of January 2019 – will provide participating farmers with valuable information and a rich picture of their microbiological diversity as well as the tools to benchmark their results against the wider Big Soil Community; providing insight into the impact of soil management, crop rotations and farm system dynamics.

Fera employs 300 scientists and is based near York at the National Agri-food Innovation Campus. It works with UK and international partners, governments and other public bodies to innovate and deliver translational science that will protect and enhance food, plants, animals and the environment.

There is growing recognition of the importance of understanding soil health beyond that of the traditional physical and chemical properties. To date, there has been no unified metric of soil health and limited availability or uptake of commercial soil biology measures. Fera has recognised that due to the complexity of analysing soil biology, a collaborative effort is required to drive a coordinated approach to understanding the role of soil microbial communities.

As part of the Big Soil Community project, metagenomics are providing a census of these communities and are barcoding populations across different farms and systems. This will give farmers the ability to identify similarities and differences which associate with healthy soil conditions, and enable them to review their farming practices and potentially take measures to improve the overall health of their soils.

Fera is using high throughput sequencing, metagenomics and metabarcoding to analyse soil samples to describe the diversity of microbial populations.

Farmers were invited to join the community from June until September 2018. They were asked to collect and submit their soil samples for analysis as well as information on where the sample was taken from.

Results will be returned to participants as an individual report alongside the anonymised Big Soil Community benchmarking report of all results which provides meta-analysis and system specific descriptions of differences in microbial populations (e.g. standard versus low-tillage systems).

Fera also engaged with supply chain organisations, retailers and farming groups on the project – retailers, for instance, will be able to gain an understanding of the soil health of their growers and benchmark this against the wider community.

Farmers are now being invited to take part in The Big Soil Community in 2019. Farmers who wish to register their interest can visit https://www.fera.co.uk/crop-health/introducing-the-big-soil-community.

Guy Thallon, Strategic Business Development Manager in the Crop Health division at Fera Science, who is leading on the project, said: “Sustainable farming and Soil Health has never been higher on the agenda as it is now, which is why it’s the right time for this study to unlock the potential of soil biology.

“The soil microbial communities in our agricultural systems are incredibly rich and complex but hold great promise for sustainable agriculture. Large-scale, collaborative projects are required to break down this complexity and move the interest of soil health into a biology space.”

Fera is driven by a need to address important global issues, such as sustainably feeding a growing population and security challenges. Fera uses original thinking and innovation in developing early stage detection to solve the big issues facing the agri-food industry.

To enable sustainable solutions in agriculture, Fera offers a suite of resources, testing facilities and expertise. It also creates and delivers integrated, innovative and expert research services and products for its partners in crop protection, chemical and animal health companies, as well as food producers and growers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

For more information on the Big Soil Community, visit https://www.fera.co.uk/crop-health/introducing-the-big-soil-community

For more information on Fera, visit https://www.fera.co.uk/