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Agroecology

Photograph of researchers laying out an ecological field experiment on the Carse
a rigorous scientific basis for sustainable cropland...scales from individuals to landscapes...a hub for research and outreach in arable-grass systems

The Agroecology Group is focused on contributing to the understanding, development, and establishment of sustainable and resilient agri-food systems. The Group combines excellent domain-based science with a holistic, transdisciplinary approach that integrates research from agroecosystems to value chains in support of the transformation to sustainable farming and other land use systems in Scotland, Europe, and globally.

Integrated Cropping Systems focusses on the agronomic, economic, and environmental aspects of crop production at field and farm scales. The aim is to develop tools and practices for resilient, carbon-neutral, diversified cropping systems that produce food, feed, fuel, and fibre sustainably. Drawing on expertise in ecology, plant science, entomology, pathology and agronomy, our research tests new crop types, alternative cropping practices, and integrated farm management approaches for their effects on agroecosystem biodiversity, functional ecology, ecosystem services, and resilience to environmental change.

Sustainable Agroecosystems considers the sustainability of agricultural production systems in their widest sense, including the contribution of non-agricultural land, at farm, regional and national scales. Building on life cycle, spatial and landscape ecology, ecosystem analysis and social-ecological approaches, we monitor, evaluate, and forecast the performance of land use systems, predicting the outcome of existing practice and to design, test, and promote sustainable alternatives.

Agri-food Systems addresses the relationship between crop production and the value-chain with the objective of developing agri-food systems to optimise performance crop quality while also addressing current system ‘lock-ins’ preventing sustainable agricultural production. The research includes fundamental investigations of key beneficial elements of crop production (e.g. plant physiology and genetics, Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria (PGPR), and the soil microbiome).  This informs the co-creation and development of new approaches, methods, and products with industry; including the refinement of evaluation tools to quantify consequent sustainability impacts across scales.

We have studied the Atlantic Maritime Croplands of Scotland extensively and have established this as a major regional case-study. We work with farmers and farming interests throughout the region and have contributed to many inter-regional projects across the UK and EU. Our team welcomes new approaches for collaborative research.

The Agroecology Group takes a leading role in working collaboratively to conduct excellent science, share knowledge and have impact in sustainable land management. We work with scientists across disciplines and with stakeholders in land use, agriculture, and value chains to co-develop research needs and test innovative solutions. We are committed to open science, knowledge exchange and demonstration to ensure our research reaches a wide audience of end users. Examples include:

Co-innovation with industry and value chains

  • Ecosystem service monitoring – applying new sensing technology to understand the environmental determinants of pollination and fruit set in the CherryBerry project.
  • Novel products – development of processes with a short value chain to commercialise neutral spirit production from peas ‘Against the Grain‘. This created a valorised circular economy for an on-farm distillery via production of the world’s first climate positive gin and vodka, plus high protein coproducts for animal feed. Contact: Pete Iannetta
  • Underutilised crops – The RADIANT project is using multiactor-engagement approaches to understand and develop dynamic value chains that safeguard and optimise the socio-economic potential of underutilised crops. Contact: Pete Iannetta

Participatory research with farmers

  • On farm trials – We work with farmers to test different crop combinations and agronomy for improved intercrop performance and biodiversity, as part of the DIVERSify and SEAMS projects. Contact: Ali Karley
  • Living labs – We use living labs as places to experiment on the ground, focussing on co-design with land managers, scientists, industry, public agencies and citizens. For example, in the Global CFaH project we are working with local communities and food producers in small island settings to co-design, deliver and evaluate interventions to increase local sustainable food production for better household nutrition and health. Contact: Ali Karley

Research and innovation networks

  • Farmer Clusters – A network of Farmer Clusters is being established across Europe as part of the FRAMEwork project. Contact: Graham Begg
  • IPM Demo Hubs – As part of an EU-wide multi-actor network, a network of farmers has been created who are moving towards the adoption and demonstration of advanced IPM practices on their farms. Contact: Graham Begg
  • LEAFInnovation Centre at the James Hutton Institute –  co-ordinated by the Agroecology Group in close partnership with the Farm.

Research and demonstration facilities

  • Centre for Sustainable Cropping – A long term experiment and research-to-application platform to design, implement and test a regenerative cropping system, hosted at the James Hutton Institute’s Balruddery Farm. Contact: Cathy Hawes
  • The Living Field – The Living Field site at the institute’s Invergowrie campus is used for education, outreach, and public understanding. Contact: Graham Begg

Current Projects

legumES

This EU Horizon Europe funded Research & Innovation Action aims to optimise the ecosystem services (ES) provided by legumes crops across scales through development and uptake of best-practices and methodologies; also, through quantification and balancing of the opportunities and risks posed by legume-based systems (cropped and semi-natural). The coordinator (a JHI/University Catholica Porto shared appointment) leads a multi-disciplinary consortium of 22 partners comprising RTO’s, NGOs, SMEs, and large companies through a suite of 25 innovative Pilot Studies.

Contact: Pete Iannetta

Nutrient Use Efficiency of Legumes (NUE-Leg)

Led by industry (Openfolde Ltd), the consortium of 10 partners comprises 8 businesses and two RTOs (including JHI). NUE-Leg’s innovation is embedded in fusing forefront technologies across the supply chain for compound additive benefits. The project is a collaboration between industry and plant breeders, biologists, socio-economists, and computing scientists. NUE-Leg will provide farmers with pioneering plant and microbial (rhizobia) genetics, state-of-the-art low-carbon blueprints, and ground-breaking digital tools to optimise and valorise economics and environmental efficiency of forage legume-grass cropping systems for milk and meat production.

Contact: Pete Iannetta

Nitrogen Climate Smart

Nitrogen Efficient Plants for Climate Smart Arable Cropping Systems (NCS) is a four-year £5.9M research programme involving over 200 UK farms and 18 UK partners comprising companies, research institutes and farmer networks led by PGRO. The project aims to reduce the carbon footprint of UK farming by 1.5Mt CO₂e/yr (54%) by increasing pulse cropping in arable rotations to 20% (from 5%), and offsetting imported soya meal (50%), with cost savings of over £1bn/yr.

Contact: Pete Iannetta

ECONUTRI

Econutri, funded by the EU Horizon Europe programme, aims to optimise, validate and demonstrate innovative concepts and technologies for Ecologically sustainable Nutrient management in agriculture to prevent, mitigate and eliminate pollution in soils, water and air. The ECONUTRI consortium includes 24 partners from Europe and 6 partners from China.

Contact: Pete Iannetta

MARINADE

Funded by the Hannah Dairy Research Foundation, this two-year project aims to optimise the yield of home-grown high-protein legume grain crops using intercrops and involves use of novel 3- and 4-, winter- and spring-crop mixtures (respectively). The research takes a multiactor ‘co-development of knowledge’ approach through involvement of key industry stakeholders including: the Processors and Growers Research Organisation; LS Plant Breeding; Harbro Ltd; and J.S. Baird & Sons, Scotson (organic) Farm.

Contact: Pete Iannetta

Eir-Flux (eirflux.ie)

With a view towards identifying scenarios capable of achieving climate and environmental objectives over the long-term, Eir-Flux considers Ireland potential land-uses as a model to identify alternative and complementary options at the catchment level using the GOBLIN framework. EIR-Flux will therefore attempt to identify pathways capable of meeting multiple objectives related to GHG emissions plus, air and water quality.

Contact: Colm Duffy

Global CfaH

The project is working in four countries, Fiji, the Philippines, Dominica and St. Lucia, to provide evidence on how to improve human and ecosystem health for better nutrition, guided by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 10 elements of agroecology. We are working with local communities to assess their needs and develop ‘living labs’ to work together to increase local food production and household nutrition.

Contact: Graham Begg

FRAMEwork

The EU Horizon 2020 project, FRAMEwork brings together farmers, researchers and other stakeholders to share knowledge – testing innovative practices for collective, landscape-scale biodiversity enhancement in agroecosystems and examining how we value biodiversity and ecosystem services in our agri-food systems.

Contact: Graham Begg

IPMWORKS

IPMworks is an EU H2020 financed project gathering 31 partners from 16 European countries, coordinated by the French National Research Institute Agriculture,Food and the Environment(INRAE). IPMWORKS is promoting the adoption of IPM strategies, based on a EU-wide network of farmers, who will progress the adoption of IPM – through peer-to-peer learning and joint efforts – and demonstrate to other farmers that holistic IPM “works”.

Contact: Graham Begg

Current PhD Students

Umut Katal (2023-27), The development of lanD use rIsk AssessMEnT tools to identify and deploy lEgume-based crop-Rotations for more-sustainable feed- and food-systems across scales (DIAMETER). Co-funded by DEFRA and the EC, this project is co-supervised with Prof. David Styles & Dr Colm Duffy, National University of Ireland Galway (IE).

Alice Walker (2022-26), Assessing Scotland's Pollinator Strategy: A 'real-world' approach.  Funded by NERC through the Edinburgh Earth, Ecology and Environment Doctoral Training Partnership and co-supervised by Dr Gail Jackson, University of Edinburgh (UK) and Dr Lorna Cole, SRUC (UK).

Tamanna Jithesh (2022-26), Realising the environmental benefits of faba beans (Vicia faba L.) via optimised nutrition and nitrogen fixation. Funded by a UKRI-BBSRC Collaborative Training Partnerships (CTP) with the Processors and Growers Research Organisation (PGRO). Co-supervised with Jim Monaghan (as lead) of Harper Adams University (UK).

Rafael Diogo Caldeira Duarte (2021-25), Legume-Polyphenol and -Lectin non-nutritional factors and their role in determining the fUnctional diverSity of soil- and gut-microbes (Legumes-PLUS). Co-funded by Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT, Portugal), and co-supervised by Prof. Marta Vasconcelos, University Catholic Porto (PT).

Diana G Tixi (2019-23), A ‘real-world’ approach to predicting the impact of land-use policies on pollinators. Funded by the Macaulay Development Trust and University of Greenwich, and co-supervised by Dr Sarah Arnold, NIAB (UK) and Prof. Richard Hopkins, University of Greenwich (UK).

Grace Wardell (2019-22), Exploring the ecological and evolutionary impacts of novel agricultural probiotics on native microbial communities. A studentship co-funded with Sheffield University, and co-supervised with Dr Elenora Harrison, Sheffield University (UK).

The Team

Alice Walker
Alon Zuta
Ana Del Valle
Andrew Christie
Ashley Murdoch
Carolyn Mitchell
Chrizelle Krynauw
Gill Banks
Isabella Swyst
Jack Fletcher
Katie Johnstone
Umut Kartal

Research

Areas of Interest


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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.