Documents to download

Soils are one of the most biodiverse habitats on Earth, with an estimated 4,000 to 50,000 species of microorganism per gram of soil. The ‘soil microbiome’ refers to communities of microbes within the soil, which include bacteria and fungi, but also archaea (single-celled organisms initially identified in extreme habitats), protists (single-celled organisms that, unlike bacteria, contain a nucleus) and viruses. However, although they constitute a large part of the UK’s biodiversity, many soil organisms remain unknown. The soil microbiome underpins many of the ecosystem services that benefit humans, which include:

  • movement and exchange of key plant growth limiting nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus;
  • protection of plants from stress, pests and pathogens;
  • decontamination of soils through bioremediation;
  • helping to maintain the physical structure of soil;
  • decomposition of organic wastes while storing carbon;
  • regulating the flow of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane; and,
  • a repository of undiscovered biochemicals, including antibiotics, that can be used to address antibiotic resistance

Soil health is defined in the academic literature as the capacity of a soil to function as a living ecosystem and support to sustain plants, animals and humans, and maintain environmental quality. The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan highlight the importance of soil health and stated an ambition to manage England’s soils sustainably by by 2030.

Key points in this POSTnote include:

  • The soil microbiome refers to the diverse communities of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms in soil habitats.
  • Soil microbes underpin key benefits that soils provide, such as food production, the clean-up of pollutants, and carbon storage in soil organic matter.
  • Conventional agricultural practices and climate change can drive changes in soil microbiomes that result in soils providing fewer benefits.
  • New genomic and chemical analyses can characterise the soil microbiome, increasing understanding of the roles it performs.
  • Protecting and restoring the soil microbiome has both economic and environmental benefits, but there is a lack of studies on measures for achieving this.

 

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Dr Matthew Shepherd, Natural England *
  • Philippa Arnold, National Farmers Union
  • Dr Simon Jeffery, Harper Adams University
  • Dr Katie Field, Leeds University
  • Professor Gary Bending, University of Warwick
  • Dr Roy Neilson, James Hutton Institute*
  • Dr Maddy Giles, James Hutton Institute*
  • Dr Davide Bulgarelli, University of Dundee*
  • Dr Lynsay Blake, Durham University*
  • Dr Clare McCann, Newcastle University*
  • Dr Neil Gray, Newcastle University*
  • Professor Richard Bardgett, University of Manchester*
  • Dr Rachel Marshall, Lancaster University*
  • Dr Tim Mauchline, Rothamsted Research*
  • Ian Clark, Rothamsted Research*
  • Professor Jim Harris, Cranfield University*
  • Dr Anna Krzywoszynska, University of Sheffield*
  • Professor Duncan Cameron, University of Sheffield
  • Professor Jurriaan Ton, University of Sheffield   
  • Dr Stephen Rolfe, University of Sheffield*
  • Professor Jonathan Leake, University of Sheffield*
  • Professor Jack Gilbert, University of California San Diego*
  • Dr Christopher Brown,Society for Applied Microbiology
  • The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures 

*Denotes people who acted as external reviewers of the briefing


Documents to download

Related posts

  • Evolving life sciences and agricultural research approaches may have a decreasing need to access physical resources in future, such as plant seeds or viral material. Information and genetic data may be all that is required for commercial exploitation of biological resources. This POSTnote summarises the challenge this creates for international discussions on the governance of genetic resources and the possible options for addressing these.

  • Plastic packaging waste has become a key consumer concern. In the UK, over 2.2 million tonnes of plastic packaging enter the consumer market each year. Much of this is used in the food sector because plastic packaging is cheap, light to transport, hygienic, and can be used to extend the product’s shelf-life. In the UK around 46% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, mostly through local authority collections. However several issues with the current systems of plastics recycling persist. This POSTbrief reviews proposals to Defra and HM Treasury to improve plastics recycling in the UK .

  • The effect of consumers stockpiling certain goods and the slow reaction of retailers to ration them exposed the limitations of cost-efficient and streamlined supply chains to be agile and adapt to unforeseen shocks. This suggests that changes may be needed to make the supply chain more resilient. Specific problems arose from the closure of parts of the catering sector and the lack of agility in redistributing supplies from this sector to retail outlets or the food donation/charity sector. This was due to challenges in packaging availability, logistics and labelling requirements; leading to an increase in food loss. Agricultural food producers and the wider supply chain may have incurred significant losses from the impacts of COVID-19. Food processing facilities have been responsible for a number of localised COVID-19 outbreaks. This may be influenced by a range of factors, including the proximity of workers for prolonged periods, the need to speak loudly to communicate over the noise of the machines or the shared welfare spaces external to the factory setting. The immediate effects of COVID-19 on the food supply system are the current policy concern, but the longer-term food system issues highlighted as a result of the pandemic will have to be addressed by considering how to build resilience to possible future shocks.