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

13 October 2014

NERC and the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 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 NERC and BBSRC 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 & Rhizosphere Interactions for Sustainable Agri-ecosystems' (SARISA) programme and the appointment of a soil coordinator - 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 NERC and BBSRC, 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.

The minister for universities & science, 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 NERC and BBSRC to fund this area is very much welcomed.

Further information

NERC media office
01793 411939
07785 459139


1. The CDT will be awarded to the STARS consortium led by Lancaster University. The other members of the consortium are the universities of Cranfield, Bangor and Nottingham, the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Rothamsted Research, the British Geological Survey and the James Hutton Institute.

Research council investment in GFS-SARISA demonstrates an on-going commitment to soil research. It forms part of a broader suite of collaborative soil security activities, developed under the umbrella of GFS and funded by BBSRC, NERC, Defra and the Scottish Government. The funded projects for the GFS SARISA programme are:

  • Dr Gary Bending, University of Warwick - Roots of decline? Assembly and function of the rhizosphere microbiome in relation to yield decline

    Dr Bending's team will use advanced genetic sequencing methods to derive new understanding of the factors which shape the composition of the rhizosphere microbial community (ie its 'microbiome'), and its consequences for crop growth.

    Using field crops of oilseed rape as a model system the researchers will determine the roles of soil biodiversity, local climate, soil properties, rotation and geographical distance in shaping the rhizosphere microbiome. Oilseed rape suffers 6% - 25% annual losses, termed yield decline, because of the development of a detrimental rhizosphere microbiome, for which there is no treatment.

    The project will identify shifts in microbial composition and both microbial and plant gene expression associated with a change from a healthy to a diseased rhizosphere. They will use this data to investigate the potential to manipulate recruitment of detrimental and beneficial soil biota into the rhizosphere microbiome in order to promote crop growth and yield.

  • Dr John Hammond, University of Reading - Phosphorus cycling in the soil-microbe-plant continuum of agri-ecosystems

    Dr Hammond's team will use a variety of approaches to better understand the role plants and microbes living in the rhizosphere play in making phosphorus available for plant growth and how these roles change during plant development under field and laboratory conditions.

    The microbes in the rhizosphere rely on carbon from the plant for growth. Under laboratory conditions the team will study plants that release different amounts of carbon into the rhizosphere and investigate the effects on the rhizosphere microbial community and the amount of phosphorus available for plant growth.

    New opportunities for breeding crops that are more efficient at acquiring phosphorus may be possible, together with potential biotechnological applications for microbes and enzymes.

  • Professor Paul Hallett, University of Aberdeen - Rhizosphere by design: Breeding to select root traits that physically manipulate soil

    This project will explore how various root traits change the physical properties of soil to improve the efficiency with which crops can capture water and nutrients. The team will use the results of a wide range of experiments to develop data and numerical models that will help plant breeders identify optimal root traits for more sustainable agricultural production.

  • Professor Jonathan Leake, University of Sheffield - MycoRhizaSoil: Combining wheat genotypes with cultivation methods to facilitate mycorrhizosphere organisms improving soil quality and crop resilience

    Soil erosion as a result of arable cultivation is a major global constraint on crop yields and efficient use of fertilizer. Symbiotic fungi called mycorrhizas that receive sugars from plant roots in return for providing nutrients and water to the plants can help stabilise soil and contribute to soil organic matter storage.

    This work will determine the roles mycorrhiza and co-associated soil microorganisms play in maintaining soil structure and organic matter content. In a series of field trials using selected wheat lines the team will determine the extent to which artificial inoculation with mycorrhizal fungi and adoption of no-tillage leads to improvements in soil quality and crop resilience to drought, excess water and native diseases compared to wheat grown conventionally with annual tillage.

2. The soil coordinator is supported by NERC, BBSRC, the Scottish Government and Defra to lead, manage and coordinate activities within the Soils Security programme, which is aligned with the GFS programme. Recognising the complex and active funding landscape for soils in the UK, NERC and the other funders are asking the soil coordinator to link with other relevant initiatives of the funders, in particular the BBSRC/NERC programme Soils & Rhizosphere Interactions for Sustainable Agri-ecosystems (SARISA), the Soil Science CDT, the NERC/BBSRC Sustainable Agriculture Research & Innovation Club (SARIC), and the Defra soils research programmes and the Sustainable Intensification Platform.

Press release: 28/14