Achieving sustainable soil management in the UK

Ensuring soils are managed sustainably is an urgent priority for UK farming and land management. Dr Anna Krzywoszynska and Dr Sam Outhwaite share their findings on the state of soil management in the UK today.

A field half mud and half grassed
On

Soil degradation is a global crisis threatening to undermine food and environmental security and costs the UK economy £1.2bn annually.

Ensuring soils are managed sustainably is becoming an urgent priority for UK farming and land management as well as a policy concern.

Achieving sustainable soil management (SSM) depends on the development and adoption of appropriate practices by land managers. There is very little evidence about the adaptation of farming and land management in the UK to soil sustainability objectives. Due to the knowledge-intensive and context-specific nature of SSM, it is adopted more in communities of practice which share knowledge and experiment together (Krzywoszynska 2019). However, there is little evidence of the spread and influence of soil-oriented farming and land management networks in the UK.

Ploughed soil in a field of crops
Ploughed soil in a field of crops

The project

This project between the University of Sheffield and ADAS begins to address these important gaps in evidence. It also investigates the obstacles and facilitators of sustainable soil management.

Using a nationwide survey of soil management practices, social network mapping and in-depth interviewing the research identified:

  1. The extent to which the general farming and land managing population are aware and engaged with SSM
  2. The extent of the uptake of SSM practices in the UK
  3. The number and make-up of organisations promoting SSM practices in the UK 
  4. What support is needed to enable wider adoption of SSM practices

Research project outcomes webinar

Dr Anna Krzywoszynska and Dr Sam Outhwaite share their findings on the state of soil management in the UK today.

Research findings

The nationwide survey was advertised through social media, traditional media and networks. More than 400 people responded and the final sample for analysis consisted of 339 complete and viable responses. The character of the sample was largely representative with the geographical spread suggesting an even representation of UK farm types. Notably the sample had a higher than average representation of both younger farmers and land managers, and organic farms. 

There is a wide up-take of Sustainable Soil Management practices amongst UK farmers and land managers

The survey results showed a broad awareness and adoption of SSM practices in the UK across different sectors. 92% of respondents stated SSM as something they already practice on farm, reporting a very broad range of activities, in various combinations. There was little evidence that different practices were being combined in similar ways on different farms. Rather, there seems to be no universal approach to SSM in the UK, and what works in terms of soil management is local to that farm, area and activity. (Please see the webinar above for a full overview of the findings)

On average respondents reported using at least four different SSM practices as part of their farming and land management. The most highly reported practice was manure spreading (74%). Other practices reported significantly included the use of cover crops (44%), leys (41%), and minimum tillage (37%). Whilst around one third of respondents report practicing returning crop residues, diversified rotations, overwinter stubble, mob/holistic grazing, cash cover crops or no tillage; indicating a wide adoption of singular practices.

Bar chart detailing current soil management practice methods of UK farmers and landowners
On average respondents reported using at least four different SSM practices as part of their farming and land management

Combining low soil disturbance, diverse rotations, and adding organic matter to enhance soil health are the principles of conservation agriculture and regenerative agriculture. However, little evidence of such systemic adoption of a combination of sustainable soil management practices was found.


Knowledge exchange around sustainable soil management in the UK is fragmented

Farmer-driven networks are regularly recognised as being crucial to the circulation of knowledge in the farming community and the adoption not just of land management practices but technology and more. 

Building on this we worked to identify the organisations promoting and facilitating a systemic approach to SSM in the UK. The research found there does exist a small, tightly interlinked UK network which specifically focuses on systemic SSM adoption. Its core is formed of four directly linked organisations, and a fifth additional organisation tied to this core network. 

The research also found a much wider network of organisations, platforms (online and offline) and groups who promote or engage with SSM. SSM is not however a central concern for these organisations and groups. Rather, they advocate the use of SSM practices as a way to achieve other objectives, such as catchment sensitive farming. In catchment sensitive farming the primary objective is to improve water quality, the practices deployed to achieve this include SSM approaches. That said, these organisations perform an essential role by spreading an awareness of SSM practices. The research revealed that the UK SSM is primarily promoted by:

  • Championing Experts (individual experts offering advice) 
  • Championing Farmers (e.g. soil farmer of the year)
  • Farmer networks 
  • Facilitated Groups (formal/ informal; public/ privately funded)
  • Platforms for knowledge exchange (social media, online forums, apps and toolkits) 
  • Accreditation or certifications schemes/ organisations
  • Farmer discussion groups focusing on general ‘best practice learning’ (rather than implementing SSM)
Picture of hands mixing soil together.

How policy can support SSM in UK agriculture and land management

The project sought to understand what policy mechanisms could support farmers and their innovation networks to further spread sustainable soil management practice. Significantly, the research highlights that for systemic adoption of SSM both participation in formal farming networks (i.e. membership organisations) and (traditional) farm advisors do not seem to have a strong influence on the adoption. The research identified a series of barriers and mechanisms of support for the implementation of conservational SSM practices. 

Reflecting the barriers identified, mechanisms to support the widespread implementation of SSM in the UK emerging from the research included economic support and incentives, stronger regulation, community support and research, evidence, education/ training & knowledge support. 


Contact information

If you want to find out more about the results of this project you can take a look at the achieving sustainable soil management presentation or you can get in touch:

ADAS: Dr Samantha Outhwaite (samantha.outhwaite@adas.co.uk )

University of Sheffield: Dr Anna Krzywoszynska

REF 2021 illustration

Research Excellence Framework 2021 results

The results demonstrate our research and impact excellence across a broad range of disciplines and confirm that our research is having a significant positive impact on lives across the globe.