Soil focus at Highland Show Dinner

Club members and their guests enjoyed an exclusive dinner at RBS Headquarters, Gogarburn, Edinburgh, on the eve of the Royal Highland Show, with a fascinating talk delivered by Prof Colin Campbell CEO of the James Hutton Institute

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ONCE again the Club entertained members and their guests at an exclusive dinner on the eve of the Royal Highland Show at RBS Headquarters, Gogarburn, Edinburgh, where Prof Colin Campbell, Chief Executive of the James Hutton Institute, delivered a fascinating talk on the role of science in agriculture and the potential for a better understanding of soil systems, which could even underpin fresh lending to farming businesses.


Malcolm Buchanan, Chairman RBS Scotland and Managing Director for Corporate and Commercial Banking Scotland welcomed over 90 people to the dinner, including Keith Brooke, Chairman of the Royal Highland Agricultural Society.


Guests enjoyed an excellent dinner with traditional entertainment provided by Loretto School’s excellent Highland dancers accompanied by the Combined Cadet Force pipe and drum band.


In his address Prof Campbell shared insights into his institute’s namesake, the eminent 18th Century scientist James Hutton, and detailed some of its leading research and some novel ideas for the current farm policy debate.


“In this the Year of History, Culture and Archaeology the James Hutton Institute is celebrating James Hutton, who we are named after, and also announcing the establishment of the James Hutton Foundation, to celebrate his contributions to science and farming, and to create a new membership organisation for those wishing to support the role of science in farming, land use and environment,” he said.  


“James Hutton was undoubtedly one of the Scotland’s and the UK’s greatest ever scientists, a leading figure of the Scottish enlightenment, during the golden age of intellectual and scientific achievements.” A son of Edinburgh, born in 1726, and educated at Edinburgh University, he was first a medic then a chemist, a botanist, zoologist, meteorologist, and also, and very importantly, a farmer, with both upland and lowland farms in the Scottish Borders.


While he was a leading thinker in the early stages of the agricultural revolution in Scotland his manuscript, the Elements of Agriculture, which shows keen insight into such topics as the formation of soils, soil fertility, the role of climate on crop yields and selective breeding of crops and animals has until now remained unpublished. However, the Institute is working with Honorary Fellow Prof Alan Werritty to publish his unfinished manuscript later this year.


Hutton challenged the accepted wisdom of the time and created a new vision of how the world was formed and how it was constantly evolving. Now, more than ever, science is needed again, Prof Campbell contended.  


“The global challenge to feed and sustain a projected 8.3m population by 2030 is enormous. It is estimated we will need 50% more food, 50% more energy and 30% more water at the same time as soil, land, biodiversity and water (our Natural Capital) is being degraded. It is estimated that we will need 120 million hectares in developing countries alone.


“On top of this the climate is changing. If we refer to the James Hutton Institute’s land capability for agriculture map of Scotland in the year 2050 we see productive land may actually increase as climate limitations due to temperature are less constrained. However, across the globe we will lose much more currently productive land. We simply cannot afford to lose this land. The economic cost of getting it wrong is enormous.


“This month the Economist reported that a national soil survey in China showed 19.4% of farmland was contaminated by organic and inorganic chemical pollutants. That amounts to roughly 250,000 square kilometres of contaminated soil, equivalent to the total arable farmland of Mexico. The cost of cleaning this to a proper standard would in theory cost $1,000 trillion—more than all the wealth in the world.


“So our Natural Capital, some might say, is priceless and beyond worth. But we must find ways to value it if we are to grow it and reward those who do look after it on behalf of us all. This is one of the reasons why we created the new Royal Highland Show competition for the Best Soil in Show (awarded to Roger Polson of Knock Farm, Moray on Friday at the show).


Scotland’s agricultural land has a huge mix of factors to understand. 78% of Scotland’s land area is managed for some agricultural purpose, divided into 460,000 fields, across 11 basic farm types, on more than 600 soil types, managed by more than 63,000 individual farm holdings. And this is all in a very variable climate, which is changing.


“We need science to help manage and predict what will happen with this in the future. We need to work even closer with the sector, but also right across the supply chain to make full sense of this.”


The Innovation Centre at the James Hutton Institute, known as the International Barley Hub, is building on Scotland’s world-leading science in this area, and has for the first time brought farmers, plant breeders, food, feed and drink manufacturers to the table, to create an industry-led research programme around this important crop.


The benefits in economic impact are huge, estimated at £26 for every £1 invested. Barley is Scotland’s top crop and its sustainable production in the short, medium and long term future is very important for many, not least the whisky industry, Scotland’s single biggest export earner and contributor to the exchequer.


“We also have plans for breeding new blueberry varieties to help the evolving Scottish blueberry industry, and we recently developed a novel way of growing hops under poly-tunnels, leading to Scotland’s first ever commercial hop harvest for the emerging craft brewing industry.


“We also address everything from robotics, to gene editing in crops, to exploiting the microbiomes of plants and soils, beer made from beans, apps for measuring soils, crops and crop diseases, as well as looking at the role of women in agriculture and the novel use of touch-tables to engage the public and stakeholders in co-constructing solutions to contested issues, such as recreation and access.


“There are new frontiers opening also in understanding the huge biodiversity that exists in our soils. A single gram of soil can have 10,000 different species of bacteria. This mega diversity is referred to as the soil microbiome and understanding it will undoubtedly lead to new ways of managing soils and crops. 


“You may be familiar with the revolution in human health brought about by understanding the human gut microbiome. There have been huge advances in understanding how different gut bacteria influence our health, immune system and even our mood. There is one bacterium that alters our levels of serotonin, the hormone that makes us happy. It is even called the ‘happy bacterium’. I mentioned this at a meeting of potato farmers and one member of the audience immediately quipped: ‘you won’t find any happy bacteria in a potato farmer’.” 


“We have also shown in recent experiments that altering the types of soil biodiversity on strawberry plants can affect not only the flavour of the fruit but how many times a bee spends at the flower to pollinate it. Another experiment has shown soil organisms living on crop roots can send signals underground to adjacent plants when they are attacked by pests, so inducing defence systems before they are attacked. These are amazing and subtle effects that might easily lead to novel ways of improving the yield and quality of crops.” 


Not all innovations are high tech though. James Hutton was an observational scientist, who on his farm observed soil eroding and clogging up his drains. From this he realised there had to be a continual renewal process of erosion, countered by new soil formation. This led to his thinking about the long times required to make this possible.


“It is with a degree of irony that I can tell you that 250 years later this is still a problem in modern agriculture. But the Institute recently awarded several Innovation prizes for the invention of the ‘Magic Margins’ concept. This is a simple fix to the problem of losing soil from our agricultural fields using low tech, existing, on-farm machinery to build mini-hydrological dams around cultivated fields at the same time as promoting biodiversity.”


“With Brexit we have new impetus and an opportunity to revisit how we subsidise farming activities where there is public co-benefit. How many farm accounts, account for the state of their natural capital, for example? Do soil and biodiversity appear on the farm accounts? What if you are doing everything right and you are ‘growing your soil’ to grow better crops and livestock, but you cannot invest in new technology or infrastructure that converts that to cash-flow? Imagine you could borrow against the natural capital to improve your business, and there is then perhaps another mechanism by which the public and state could invest in the benefits of farming to our wider environment.”


“If we are funded properly, science will give new options and opportunities to meet the future challenges,” Prof Campbell concluded.