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BBSRC and NERC fund initiatives to protect soils and safeguard global food security

BBSRC and NERC are working together, with partners, to fund three new initiatives to improve our understanding of soils, which are key to tackling many of today's global challenges, including food, water, and energy security, and climate change.

Soil science is a key strategic priority for the Global Food Security (GFS) programme, of which BBSRC and NERC are both partners.

Soil is fundamental to our life support system, providing food, storing and filtering water, cycling nutrients and providing a habitat for many species. It is at the heart of our interaction with the environment and central to the responsible management of our planet. The world will need to produce 50% more food by 2030 to feed a growing world population and soil science is crucial to meeting this challenge.

New investment of over £7M will improve understanding of how soils are responding to challenges posed by the changing environment and our use of the land. In turn this will help us to mitigate climate change, protect against flooding, breed better crops, increase plant resistance to disease and environmental change, and develop more efficient ways of farming.

The three initiatives – a Centre for Doctoral Training, the Global Food Security 'Soil and Rhizosphere Interactions for Sustainable Agri-ecosystems' (SARISA) programme and the appointment of a Soil Co-ordinator – bring together organisations with a shared interest in soil security and developing a new generation of highly-skilled scientists.

Understanding the shared opportunity soil science presents for BBSRC and NERC scientists will help us to foster integrated, multidisciplinary research that will lead to improved sustainability and productivity of agriculture and better management of the environment.

The first of these initiatives, a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in soil science, has been awarded to the STARS (Soils Training And Research Studentships) consortium led by Lancaster University.

There is currently a need for a new generation of scientists with up-to-date skills who are able to understand the complexity of the soil ecosystem and the role it plays in the wider environment. The £2.3M CDT programme addresses this with a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to giving researchers a wide breadth of skills and knowledge.

The programme will provide funding for eight studentships each year for three years, giving the researchers access to expertise, equipment and training that will help them deal with global challenges.

New research on soils will be supported by a BBSRC led initiative SARISA, developed with NERC under the Global Food Security programme. Four research projects, with a collective value of £5M, have been funded to investigate the interactions between soil and the communities of microbes that live in close association with plant roots.

More broadly, a team led by Professor Chris Collins at the University of Reading has been appointed to link the developing Soil Security Programme, the CDT and SARISA projects with other on-going research into soils to make sure that they work together and can maximise their impact.

Funding of £700k over five years has been provided for this dynamic role by BBSRC and NERC , including contributions from Defra and the Scottish Government.

This activity is part of the Soil Security Programme, which aims to secure future soil quality to sustain ecosystems and the services they deliver to people – such as food, flood and disease regulation, carbon storage and clean water. Supported by BBSRC, the Scottish Government and Defra, this NERC-led programme aligns closely to the Global Food Security Programme, which seeks to enhance the coordination of research and training for food security.

Minister for Universities, Science and Cities Greg Clark said: "Forging these strong partnerships between research councils and the three innovative new initiatives announced today are vital in addressing major challenges facing our society like feeding a growing population. By working together, the research councils can bring a range of perspectives to bear on these issues, ensuring that that excellent UK research is translated into tangible economic and societal benefits."

NERC's Chief Executive, Professor Duncan Wingham said: "Soil is central to the UK economy, generating an annual income of £5.3Bn, and providing many essential ecosystem services. But erosion, pollution and nutrient degradation are damaging this vital resource, threatening its ability to provide food and water security as well as climate mitigation. The outcomes of these initiatives will help us to manage and use this resource more responsibly into the future for the benefit of all society."

Professor Melanie Welham, BBSRC Executive Director of Science, said: "Soil research is an area of strategic importance for BBSRC, NERC and all the Global Food Security programme partners, particularly in relation to the 'sustainable enhancement' of agriculture. These initiatives are great examples of UK public funders working in partnership through GFS to support excellent interdisciplinary research in this area."

"Good management of land and soils is vital to maintain soil health, nutrient cycling and biodiversity – essential to help provide enough food for a growing global population while protecting ecosystems in the wider environment and the other benefits they provide."

Professor Tim Benton, who champions the Global Food Security Programme, said: "Without soils, agriculture is nothing. Around the world, the importance of soils for global food production and security is widely being recognised. These new initiatives recognise the importance of research needs in this area, which naturally cuts across the traditional 'environmental' and 'biological' areas. This partnership between BBSRC and BBSRC to fund this area is very much welcomed."


Story source: BBSRC News, 13 Oct 2014

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