By Prof. Chris Stoate, Head of Research, Allerton Project
The Allerton Project has a played a major role in Defra's Sustainable Intensification research Platform (SIP) over the past three years as one of the five research and demonstration farms in the SIP network. The wider SIP consortium has involved around thirty partners, and last week, most of us attended a three day conference to present our results, share lessons learnt, and discuss options for the future.
The aim of the SIP was always to establish a network of farms and associated research partners as a foundation for continuing collaboration on research into management practices which address economic, environmental and social objectives in agriculture. The need for such a network is greater now than it has ever been.
For us at Loddington, the SIP enabled us to carry out our first research into grass and livestock systems. As a result of the research carried out by Nottingham University School of Veterinary Science, we now have a better understanding of how availability of trace elements such as selenium and cobalt vary spatially between fields and seasonally through the spring and summer, and how sheep respond to these changes.
Such an understanding is important to our ability to integrate livestock and arable systems, bringing grass leys into the rotation so that they perform optimally for both arable and livestock interests, while also delivering for the environment through reduced flood risk, improved soil structure and water quality, and benefits to biodiversity. A summary of this work is available here. The collaboration with Nottingham University is one we are continuing, with further work already being undertaken on grass and livestock systems.
The SIP has also enabled us to carry out research into the potential economic and envirommental benefits of cover crops, and into issues associated with landuse change at the catchment scale. Cover crops are increasingly adopted on lighter soils and in southern England where they are valued by farmers for the benefits they bring to soil structure, organic matter and nutrient cycling, and subsequently to the following cash crop.
On clay soils further north though, the benefits are less clear. Growing conditions mean that harvests are later and soil conditions are cooler and often wetter when cover crops are drilled, resulting in poorer establishment and associated benefits. We were able to explore these issues and I will report on this another time, but you can download a summary here.
Our catchment scale work within the SIP was built into our existing Water Friendly Farming experiment and involved using the grass weed herbicide propyzamide as a focus for discussing with farmers a wider range of ecosystem services associated with landscape scale soil and water management. Both the plot scale cover crops research and landscape scale work on propyzamide are centred around soil as the key natural capital asset for any farm business.
Throughout, we are aiming to develop management practices which benefit both the farm business and the environment, optimising the use of natural resources to achieve this. Terms such as 'sustainable intensification', 'ecosystem services' and 'natural capital' are commonly used in discussing this broad issue, but each represents a form of jargon that sits uncomfortably with many people.
This is especially so when these terms are promoted with doctrinal zeal which can be confusing and offputting. It is almost as though such language is used to distance the speaker from the listener - more to instill authority than understanding.
But these terms do have an important role in furthering our understanding, not least through the limitations that each of them has. As an apparent oxymoron, 'sustainable intensification' does this well, highlighting the tension between maximising production now and ensuring production is maintained into the future through a healthy environment, and pointing the way towards an approach in which both can be optimised.
'Ecosystem services' emphasises the need to improve our understanding of the environmental trade-offs underlying, not just production but multiple other benefits to society, but also reveals the need to recognise those aspects of our environment from which there is no obvious or immediate benefit to society.
While 'natural capital' highlights the need to value this broad range of natural resources, it also highlights the limitations associated with making that value purely economic, revealing our lack of knowledge to make that possible, even when it might be desirable.
Such considerations can guide future research to fill these knowledge gaps, but we need to leave the jargon behind when it comes to translating those research findings into guidance for practical management.
Knowledge exchange has been a central part of the SIP, as it has for the Allerton Project throughout the past quarter century. It is that interaction between academics, the research and demonstration farm network, and a wide range of agricultural professionals which has given the SIP its strength. The foundation is laid. There is now some building to do.