A Day in the Life - We are all fed from soil
A Day in the Life: Guylain Grange, a Teagasc Walsh Scholar PhD candidate at Teagasc Environment Research Centre, Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford, talks about how plant biodiversity can help improve our soils.
With clean air and water, food is in the most important requirement for human survival. Soil is at the origin of 95% of the food we eat; but, not only that, all the paper and part of the clothes and fuel we use daily come from soil-grown plants. To encompass all the material produced by plants, we use the word ‘biomass’. Plants are the main producer of biomass and the soil provides them with substrate, nutrients and water.
Farming is an expertise in managing soil fertility to favour biomass production, in order to produce food, feed or fuel. Thus, farmers will try to maintain soil water retention and drainage, provide nutrients, and avoid degradation.
Keeping soil covered is a good way to protect it from degradation, as sunlight, raindrops and wind can be detrimental. Irish grasslands are perfect in this way. Regular rainfall also provides grass with sufficient water, and grazed animal recycle nutrients to fertilise the pasture. Fertilisers are also used to complete grassland requirements.
However, concerns are raised by climate change: rainfalls are sparser in summer and heavier in winter. The soil becomes either too wet or too dry, limiting plant growth. In addition, fertiliser use is targeted because of its associated greenhouse gas emissions. We need to adapt.
In Teagasc Johnstown Castle, we work on plant diversity as a practical way to face this challenge: keep producing grass with less summer rainfall and less fertiliser. Starting from the traditional grassland, we add other species with complementary function:
- Herb species like ribwort plantain have very deep roots, so they can absorb water long after the last rainfall.
- Clovers of different types can synthetise their own fertiliser by breeding soil microbes into their own roots … for free!
These species get along well, favouring each other’s growth! Plant biodiversity is a way of improving productivity and resilience of food production; but, not only that, it can also mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, favour pollinators, increase soil health, and so on.
By increasing grassland biodiversity, we want to promote sustainable food production from healthy Irish soils!
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