Recycled and waste material could be transformed into ‘man-made’ soil and re-used in agriculture under a new project being by the Eden Project and the University of Plymouth.
Scientists working on the FABsoil project say it could help tackle the major global crisis in soil degradation and loss, where, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, every year, around 12 million hectares of agricultural land are lost to soil erosion globally.
“What we’re trying to do is replicate the functions of the soil, but not the soil material itself,” said Dr Jennifer Rhymes, a post-doctoral research fellow at Plymouth University.
“The science community is making great strides in understanding soil and the complex interactions that occur within it, but our vision is to develop a more sustainable, self-regulating, living system that doesn’t require much subsequent management. There is, in fact, the genuine possibility that FABsoil could become more effective than our increasingly degraded soils, and that would be amazing.”
The man-made soil is made from a range of waste material from small businesses across the south west, such as composted green waste, clay, grit and bark, with scientists currently testing various blends.
"In the UK, farmers are increasingly recognising that soil is one of their most vital assets. Sadly, much has been already been degraded or lost – so the prospect of 'creating' soils could be a potential game-changer for agriculture, as well as for other industries,” said Robin Jackson, of Agri-Tech Cornwall.
Over 80,000 tonnes of the fabricated soil is already being used in a world-glass garden at the Eden Project, with future batches being tested for improvements.
Professor of organic geochemistry at Plymouth University, Mark Fitzsimons, said: “As populations continue to grow, we face the real prospect of a soil crisis and taking direct action now is the only way to begin to counter that issue.”
Leader of the Eden Rainforest Research Group, Dr Rachel Warmington, said: “Working with Mark and Jennifer has allowed us to critically review our fabricated soils, informing the choices we make for our soil recipes and how we manage the Eden soils. Fabricated soils have huge potential for repairing agricultural landscapes and particularly in urban food production.”
The project is part of a three-year initiative with £9.6 million in funding, from government research organisation Agri-Tech Cornwall, the European Regional Development Fund, and match funding from Cornwall Council.
Its overall aim is to develop a blueprint for making soil from recycled and waste materials, ensuring it is stable and fertile, hosting a range of slow-release nutrients to fuel plant growth without the high demand for fertiliser application