£1.45M grassland study to increase soil carbon and reduce greenhouse gases
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Lancaster University is leading a £1.45 million project funded by BBSRC, NERC and DEFRA to find ways to help grassland farmers increase carbon storage in soil and cut greenhouse gases, while producing enough food to feed a growing world population.
Farming and land use is responsible for about 7.4 per cent of total UK greenhouse gases. And with the UK's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is mounting pressure to find ways of increasing food production without driving up emissions, whilst also protecting biodiversity.
Researchers believe that a combination of increasing grassland plant diversity and sowing certain plants, such as legumes, could play an important part in this difficult challenge by 'locking' carbon dioxide and retaining nutrients, such as nitrogen, in the soil.
The research will take forward a study completed earlier this year in the Yorkshire Dales which showed that increasing plant diversity can yield significant benefits for soil carbon and nitrogen storage when combined with increased abundance of certain legume species, such as red clover. Covering large areas of the globe, grasslands are a key system for climate change mitigation. UK grasslands cover 36 per cent of the land surface and already hold 32 per cent of the UK soil carbon stock. If managed correctly they could potentially store even more.
The five-year study will provide the first information on the potential for plant diversity to be used to manipulate soil nutrient cycling, increasing carbon and nitrogen storage, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
The study will be based on a field experiment in the Cumbria that will test different plants and plant combinations for their impact on grassland ecosystem services including emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, nutrient cycling, and carbon storage in soil.
Professor Richard Bardgett of the Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC) is leading the study that brings together researchers at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), Lancaster and Aberdeen University.
He said: "We are presented with a conflict between the need to increase food production for a growing population, while reducing agricultural emissions and adapting to climate change, and also protecting biodiversity.
"However, we believe that, if managed appropriately, grasslands have the potential to help drive down our carbon emissions by locking up carbon in the soil, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere.
"This research will explore ways that certain combinations of plant species, combined with increased diversity, might help in this process by changing the amount of carbon entering and staying in soil, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions."
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