Monday, April 22, 2019

How mixed cropping boosts soil health and diversity

April 1, 2019 by  
Filed under Crops

Integrated cropping systems have no detrimental effect on potato yields but can enhance soil properties and biodiversity, say scientists at the James Hutton Institute.

Different ways to increase sustainable legume cultivation and consumption are being investigated by 24 institutions across Europe. The project is being coordinated by Pete Iannetta, from the James Hutton Institute’s ecological sciences group.

A paper examining plant responses to a mixed cropping system that can maintain yield while enhancing soil properties and biodiversity would be of particular interest to UK arable farmers – including potato growers, suggested Dr Iannetta.

“The paper recognises that the intensification of arable production since the 1950s has resulted in increases in yield – but this has been only at significant cost to the environment, raising serious concerns about long-term consequences for the sustainability of food production systems.”

Dr Iannetta added: “While a range of policies and practices have been put in place to mitigate negative effects in terms of pollution, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity, their efficacy has not been properly quantified.”

Researchers designed a series of trials to compare conventional arable management with a low-input, integrated cropping system designed to maintain yields while enhancing biodiversity and minimising environmental impact.

Over the first rotation, only winter wheat yielded less under integrated management. Yields were maintained for the remaining five crops – spring and winter barley, winter oilseed rape, potatoes and field beans – suggesting a negligible impact on economic returns.

“Beneficial broad-leaved weeds were significantly more abundant in the integrated management system across all crops, whereas grass weeds showed no overall response to treatment,” explained Dr Iannetta.

“Soil carbon, pH and soil concentrations of the main plant growth-limiting macronutrients were enhanced under the integrated management system which was therefore successful in meeting the goals to enhance biodiversity and reduce environmental impact without jeopardising crop yields.”

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