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Applied Microbiology International Experts Issue Warning over UK’s Sustainable Farming Initiative

Applied Microbiology International has urged the UK government to take microbiological considerations into account when creating initiatives like the Sustainable Farming Incentive – warning that the potential benefits arising from such schemes will be limited otherwise.

The call came after experts in the Food Security Advisory Group and the Healthy Land Advisory Group reviewed the Sustainable Farming Incentive, which was set up to encourage and support farmers to take actions that support food production and protect the environment, according to a press release

The SFI is one of the UK’s Environmental Land Management schemes and lists a series of actions that farmers can choose to commit to and subsequently be paid for if they undertake them.

Farming Scheme

Earlier this year, Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) secretary Steve Barclay announced what he described as the biggest upgrade to UK farming schemes since Brexit.

The updates, unveiled by Barclay at the Oxford Farming Conference, include increased payments for farmers, about 50 new actions, 50 updates to existing actions, and 21 “premium payments” for actions that have the biggest environmental impact.

The Policy Team at AMI requested experts from the two advisory groups to assess the SFI’s compatibility from a microbiological standpoint and to determine if microbiology was adequately considered during its inception.

“It became apparent from our experts that it majorly lacked microbiological considerations which greatly reduces the potential benefits that could be reaped from the initiative since microorganisms are ubiquitous in the agricultural environment and have known roles that relate to and directly impact environmental health, resilience, and food production,” said Dr Lucky Cullen, Policy, Public Affairs & Diversity Manager and Daisy Neale, Policy & Diversity Officer (AMI’s Policy Team).

“As such, we penned a letter to the policymakers – Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and EFRA, the committee that scrutinises Defra’s work.”

Winter Cover Crops

The experts were particularly concerned about one action listed – having multi-species winter cover crops.

“We noted that a lot more nuance is needed for this action since different types of cover crop have different effects on the subsequent crop species planted. For example, brassica are recommended as one of the cover crop species in the SFI — however some brassica species are able to harbour pathogens that are harmful to subsequent brassica species, such as oil seed rape,” the policy team said.

“Brassicae are also not hosts for arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi which are beneficial to plant health. Therefore, although brassicas may be harmless in some situations, they could be less beneficial, or even harmful in others, yet the SFI as it stands doesn’t consider these impacts.”

Missed Opportunity

Additionally, the team highlighted a missed opportunity within this action, as it advises farmers to remove the winter cover crop once winter ends. This eliminates the possibility of sustainable recycling through composting or utilizing the crop for potential biofuel production.

“Another action on managing hedgerows makes no mention of how to manage cut hedgerow material,” the policy team said.

“Evidence shows that some weed species that may develop in hedgerows can harbour crop pathogens — therefore we suggested that farmers should be made aware of this risk and a management system for cut material should be included in the SFI, to prevent the risk of pathogen transmission from weeds to crops.

“A further suggestion was on an action around having winter bird food on arable and horticultural land. We suggested that more nuance is needed on the subsequent crop type that can be planted to winter bird food, since some evidence suggests there could be a small risk of pathogen transmission from wintering birds to humans. As such, we suggested that crops such as ready-to-eat vegetables should not be planted in the subsequent rotation to wintering bird food, as they are a higher transmission risk than crops which are cooked prior to consumption.

Soil Health

“Our experts had a lot of thoughts around the actions pertaining to soil health and how these could be better utilised to understand the soil microbiome and soil health, but these will be further explored in a future report AMI will be publishing later this year.”

AMI also stressed the pressing necessity to begin crafting policy decisions and initiatives with enhanced transdisciplinary input. They proposed that such an approach would mitigate the risk of policies resulting in unintended adverse effects or necessitating subsequent revisions.

“We received a response to our letter from EFRA acknowledging our concerns and noting they will be factoring them into their scrutiny of the Government’s ELMs, which is reassuring. We are yet to receive a response from Defra, but we hope this is a good first step for putting microbiology on the radar of policymakers,” the policy team said.

Fast Facts:

  • Applied Microbiology International (AMI) is the oldest microbiology society in the UK and with more than half of its membership outside the UK, is truly global, serving microbiologists based in universities, private industry and research institutes around the world. 
  • AMI provides funding to encourage research and broad participation at its events and to ensure diverse voices are around the table working together to solve the sustainable development goals it has chosen to support. 
  • AMI publishes leading industry magazine, The Microbiologist, and in partnership with Oxford University Press, publishes three internationally acclaimed journals. It gives a voice to applied microbiologists around the world, amplifying their collective influence and informing international, evidence-based, decision making.