Just before the New Year, the Government’s UK Research and Innovation agency awarded £24 million to four projects designed to deliver healthier and more sustainable food.
A quarter of that was awarded to the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield.
Prof Duncan Cameron, director of the institute and a soil biologist, says the H3 Consortium – whose name stands for healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people – brings together the widest group of people he has ever worked with.
“We have farmers and systems suppliers as well as a wide range of soil, food, social and economic scientists and academics involved, but we have ensured the project literally starts from the ground up,” he says.
Farming organisations Leaf and the Soil Association sit on the project’s advisory board and researchers are engaging directly with farmers and growers to share their experiences.
The focus will be on horticulture and hydroponics, but Prof Cameron believes there will be opportunities for broadacre crops too.
“It is clear some of our soils are coming under so much pressure that they may not be able to sustain production over the long term.
Some of our peats, for example, are literally evaporating.
At the same time, there is a need for improved nutrition delivered through the foods we eat.” One area the project will look at is how regenerative agriculture can improve soil, increase biodiversity and enhance nutritional content of crops.
The project is being supported by the Food and Drink Federation.
“There is also a lot more to be known about the role of micronutrients, such as selenium and iron, in improving crop resilience and the value of the food we produce.
Meanwhile, I think the UK has fallen behind other countries in developing alternative farming systems including peri-urban and urban agriculture.” While the project will involve plenty of farmers, one of its key goals will be to improve human health, so there will be engagement with the public too.
Prof Cameron is relishing this aspect of the project, which will use art to engage with a wider audience.
He is a member of a band called Sound of Science which has performed at events such as the Cheltenham Science Festival to help promote interest and understanding of science.
“Engaging with the public is something farming is getting better at but could still gain a lot from.
I’m very fortunate in living right next door to the dairy farm Our Cow Molly, which has won awards for its engagement with the public and regularly takes part in Open Farm Sunday.
Farms like that show there is a real appetite among the public to understand more about farming and we need to make the most of that curiosity.” Commenting on the post-Brexit science environment, Prof Cameron says: “I’m glad the UK is still involved in the EU’s Horizon projects and hope we can retain our strong reputation for science across Europe.
Not being a part of the Erasmus student exchange programme is a disappointment, as is losing the freedom of movement throughout the EU.
“However, I’m happy we are free from the restrictions of the Common Agricultural Policy and am excited about the opportunities the Environmental Land Management scheme could deliver.” Prof Cameron and his team hope that they will be able to explain their project and sign up farmers to get involved at events later this year, Covid-19 restrictions permitting.
“Farmers consistently show they are interested in improving the quality of their soils and the food they produce, with many coming up with their own solutions that provide valuable lessons for their farms and others.
We want to hear from them,” he says.