A major six-year project bringing together farmers and scientists has provided important scientific evidence to support the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices in the UK.

Achieving Sustainable Agricultural Systems (ASSIST) has been addressing the challenge of feeding a growing population, by making food production more efficient and resilient to climate change, while reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.

The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), Rothamsted Research and the British Geological Survey (BGS) have been working with farmers to test nature-based and high-tech solutions as part of the £12 million programme, which has been funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). 

ASSIST provides scientific evidence to inform the UK nations’ sustainable farming subsidy schemes replacing the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), such as the Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs) in England and the Sustainable Farming Scheme in Wales.

The project team has successfully trialled methods to cut greenhouse gases from agricultural soils eg by adding biochar and undersowing clover. They have also tested ‘nature-based’ approaches to crop and livestock production, including in-field wildflower strips to enhance natural pest control, plus pastures with wildflower species to reduce farmers’ reliance on nitrogen fertilisers.

The researchers have also developed digital tools that incorporate both the latest satellite technology and environmental data, in order to help farmers implement good practice:

  • E-Planner helps farmers plan where to put environmental options on their farm eg planting flower-rich pollinator habitats, creating woodland or protecting water resources from pollution.
  • E-Surveyor uses image recognition to monitor the quality of habitats they create. 
  • E-Viewer allows farmers and others to explore what future farming landscapes might look like. 
  • Our soil moisture app shows how wet or dry the ground is relative to historical extremes.

Professor Richard Pywell of UKCEH, joint ASSIST Programme Director, says: “A key challenge we face is how to balance the production of enough food to feed the growing population while reducing the negative impacts this has on greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and air and water pollution.

“A big success of ASSIST has been the creation of a community of farmers and scientists, working together to test alternative solutions. We have been able to demonstrate the benefits of practical and more sustainable practices on the ground.”

A hybrid event to mark the end of ASSIST was held at Rothamsted Conference Centre in Hertfordshire and also online on 30 March, when members of the project team presented their preliminary results to the research community, policymakers and representatives of the agricultural sector. Oxfordshire farmer Julian Gold, who took part in the wildflower strips trial, spoke about his involvement in the ASSIST project and the relevance of its research.

Scientific papers and reports outlining full results from the trials and studies are due to be published later this year.

A new research programme, also funded by NERC and BBSRC, will continue the work of ASSIST with a particular focus on how to achieve carbon neutral farming sustainably. It is being led by UKCEH, Rothamsted, BGS, the National Centre for Earth Observation and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, and involves many of the same industry partners as ASSIST.

For more information on ASSIST, see https://assist.ceh.ac.uk/