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John Gilliland shares the ARC Zero experience on the role of soil in circular agriculture at the UN


Addressing the UNECE Working Party on Agricultural Quality Standards on the 29th of August 2023 in Geneva, John Gilliland, Chair of ARC Zero addressed the subject of “Circular Transition within the Farm Gate – a Practitioner’s view.”


He explained how the ARC Zero farmers delivered multiple public goods from their farm businesses, which were all interconnected, with soil and its health being the most pivotal asset.


John explained that if you can’t measure the soil, you would never be able to manage it. Hence, the very first action, after ARC Zero’s formation, was to baseline all seven members’ farms, in particular their soil, its fertility and its soil organic carbon stocks.


John’s own farm was selected for further analysis of its soil health, due to the presence of five historically different and distinct land uses. Earth worm populations, soil visual assessments, soil respiration rates and levels of bacterial and fungal communities were assessed and compared, with the help of Wageningen University & Research student, Ricardo Buffara.



The conclusion of this initial investigation on this one farm, is that a land use which has diversity at its core, with grazing animals eating this diversity and inoculating the soil microbiome through the returned faeces, gave the richest soil biology and highest soil carbon stocks.


John explained that ARC Zero is hoping to secure further funding to repeat this investigation across all seven farms, to see if these findings are repeated, and to confirm that good soil health lies at the core of circularity within the farm gate.


When asked by members of the Working Party whether the ARC Zero journey was scalable, John shared with them the pivotal role that he, and ARC Zero Vice Chair, Patrick Casement, played in the writing of Northern Ireland’s Sustainable Agriculture Land Management Strategy. This strategy led to the Northern Ireland Executive investing £45m into a Soil Nutrient Health Scheme, which is measuring the soil in every field across the whole of Northern Ireland over four years. This has been very well received by farmers in Northern Ireland with 92% of farmers applying in the first half of Northern Ireland selected for testing.


Members of the Working Group were very impressed with the level of farmer engagement and interest in soil health.



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