From Circular Economy to Soil Health

With increasing food demand, climate change and the drive towards a circular economy, regenerative agriculture (reusing ‘waste’ and improving crop nutrient acquisition) improves sustainability. Reusing wastewater sludge, animal manures and slurry replaces synthetic fertilisers whilst reducing carbon emissions and landfill requirements. The UK’s Circular Economy Package is driving 65% municipal waste reduction by 2035, incentivising wastewater treatment companies to reuse sludge. Waste reuse aids achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities and SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. However, these waste products may contain contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) such as human and veterinary pharmaceuticals, among other chemicals.

UoL and UoY research has demonstrated CECs can negatively affect soil and plant health, and contribute to antimicrobial resistance; a global health emergency. To enable crop access to soil nutrients and decrease reliance on chemical fertilisers crop-mycorrhizal fungal symbiosis forms a vital part of soil health.  CECs have been demonstrated to negatively impact on this symbiotic relationship reducing phosphorus transfer from soil to plant.  

Whilst we have advanced regenerative agricultural research, this has centred on a natural science, siloed approach. Whilst this has provided fundamental understanding, we need to work with farmers and social scientists to develop practices and policy recommendations integrating farmer perspectives to ensure longevity. Research at UoS, has demonstrated the importance of British farmers participation in policy development for adopting regenerative practices. Capitalising on current farmer engagement in agricultural research at UoS and UoL means that now when to undertake this project.

Our vision is to establish a multidisciplinary academic-farmer network supporting a safe transition to regenerative agriculture. Knowledge exchange with feedback loops and open communication is crucial.

We aim to create a platform whereby farmers’ views on reusing waste streams, are considered alongside farm management, economic and policy constraints together with novel pollution and mycorrhiza science.

Lead Academic at lead Institution:
Andrea Lorena Garduño Jiménez, (Faculty of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds)

Lead Academics at other two universities:
Brett Sallach, (Environment and Geography, University of York)
Dr José Luis Fajardo Escoffié, (Department of Geography, University of Sheffield)

Other staff:

Felicity Elder, (Faculty of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds)
Laura Carter, (Faculty of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds)

Sarah Knight, (Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York)

Katie Field, (School of Biosciences, University of Sheffield)

Other partners:
University of Leeds Global Food and Environment Institute (GFEI)
York Environmental Sustainability Institute (YESI)
Institute for Sustainable Food at Sheffield

Interview with Lead Academic Andrea Lorena Garduño Jiménez

What attracted you to apply for the Collaboration Fund?

The main appeal for the Collaboration Fund was the interdisciplinary aspect, allowing for a pilot study incorporating disciplines that have barely worked together in the field of emerging contaminants in agriculture before. Another important aspect was the opportunity for ECRs  to be in leadership positions, allowing us to develop new networks, gain and demonstrate valuable skills.

What can your Collaboration Fund project deliver that wouldn’t be possible doing it as one institution?

The Collaboration Fund allows us to access state-of-the-art techniques and skills relevant for our project from distinct disciplines. In our case, this means addressing sustainable agricultural nutrient supply by incorporating farmer’s perspectives as well as biological and chemical soil and environmental health.

Why is your Collaboration Fund project is important now?

Our project is a key aspect of ensuring sustainable food supply, while maintaining healthy soils. It is important now because the knowledge around emerging contaminants (e.g. human and veterinary medicines) found in sustainable fertilisers such as manure, has been mainly kept in academia and not shared and discussed with farmers. It is crucial academia and the farming community discuss this issue in order to shape future research which responds to the farming reality while protecting soil and environmental health.

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