Investing in soils could benefit the environment, animal and human health as well as achieving a net zero target, according to research led by the Institute for Global Food Safety (IGFS) at Queen’s University Belfast.

Through their carbon sink function, soils can store greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

Improving soil and land management, on farmland and degraded peat soils in particular, could significantly increase their carbon storing ability and potentially offset between 5-10%of GHGs.

Dr. Ryan Maguire, research fellow at IGFS and lead author of the published research said the potential of soil to sequester carbon is “huge” and should be “fully maximised”.

“There is an urgent need for stronger monitoring, reporting and verification processes in this area and for these to be streamlined by governments,” he continued.

Enhancing soil management and quality could also benefit ecosystem services and biodiversity through a mitigated risk of flood and erosion.

Updated soil practices could also lead to higher crop yields, better animal health and welfare, a reduced need for fertiliser and thus less pollution as well as enhanced nutritional value of produced food, according to the research.

Net zero target

The group of academic scientists including UK agriculture campaigner, Lord Curry of Kirkharle suggested that investing in soil quality should be central in achieving the net zero target.

In the research paper published in the Food and Energy Security journal, scientists argued:

“Governments need to quickly implement ‘regenerative agriculture’ policies to incentivise farmers to take up the challenge.”

Encouraging farmers to invest in the carbon storage function of their soils and more soil-friendly practices could be facilitated through a carbon credit marketplace in which carbon credits could be traded.

Regenerating soils in an environmentally-friendly way, according to the scientists, would include less tillage farming and growing more legume and multi-species swards; grazing-land management; and targeted addition of organic matter to improve soils.

These measures should be taken along with further strategies on farms to mitigate climate change, such as nutritional supplements to reduce methane emissions from ruminants, according to the researchers.

Peat soils

Restoring peatlands, the scientists argued, could maximise natural capital since carbon can be stored 100 times faster than it is being emitted.

Describing peatlands as the “gold standard” of carbon sequestration, many have become degraded due to drainage which reverses their function as carbon sinks to one of emitters.

Co-author Prof. Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen and science director of the Scottish Climate Change Centre of Expertise, said:

“There are no magic bullets for tackling climate change and we must de-carbonise all sectors of the economy as quickly as possible.”

Co-author, Prof. Steve McGrath, head of sustainable agricultural sciences at Rothamsted Research added that farmers need to know the possibilities of their soil and carbon storage management practices to realise the potential of soils.