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Improving Soil Health to Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Agri-food Systems

Researchers at the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) and the School of Biological Sciences (SBS) are exploring how improving soils can make the agri-food sector more environmentally sustainable, working in partnership with farmers.

Research Challenge


Improving soils could have wide-ranging benefits for the environment, animal, and human health – as well as moving closer to Net Zero.

Soil acts as a carbon ‘sink’, locking in greenhouse gases (GHGs) that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. Upgrading UK soils, particularly farmland and degraded peatlands, could radically improve their ability to store carbon, potentially offsetting between 5-10% of global GHG emissions.

Improving soils would also create a host of other, ancillary benefits including improved biodiversity; flood and erosion mitigation; increased crop yields; better animal health and welfare; a reduced need for artificial fertilisers; and enhanced nutritional value of food produced.

To realise the potential of soils, farmers also need to know what is possible with their soil and management combinations and how to manage and maintain any increase in carbon storage over time.

Researchers at Queen’s are exploring ways to more effectively harness the potential of soil as a carbon store and are working with farmers to help them understand the benefits that soil health can bring, both in terms of environmental sustainability and the productivity of their farms.

Our Approach


Researchers at the IGFS are highly focused on enhancing the environmental sustainability of the agri-food sector. One key element to this is the ability to measure sustainability at a farm level.

One large study they are involved with, funded at a European level, is an LCA to assess the level of carbon production in farming. They are working with farmers across the UK and Italy to co-create solutions to reduce their carbon footprint, with carbon storage and sequestration being a key part of the project.

Researchers have adopted a multi-disciplinary approach to develop a holistic platform that measures what sustainability looks like at a farm level. This includes measurement of soil health and fertility, ammonia mitigation measures, gauging the level of biodiversity on farms, and a host of other metrics. Once they can accurately measure how sustainable a farm is, they can make interventions to improve it.

“Soil has been somewhat overlooked in the carbon debate, to date. There is an urgent need for stronger monitoring, reporting, and verification processes in this area and for these to be streamlined by governments. The potential of soil to sequester carbon is huge and should be fully maximised.”

What impact did it make?


The broad range of expertise and industry partners at the IGFS means they can develop meaningful solutions and interventions to enhance the sustainability of the agri-food sector.

Researchers are addressing issues such as soil health and carbon storage, the reduction of methane emissions, animal welfare, and the measurement of sustainability at a farm level. As a result, Queen’s is at the forefront of finding ways to enhance soil health, plant health, animal health, human health, and ultimately, planetary health.

Ryan McGuire, Research Fellow at IGFS and lead author on a paper published in the Food and Energy Security journal, has also called for Governments to quickly implement ‘regenerative agriculture’ policies which incentivise farmers to improve soil health and sustainability.

For example, a carbon-credit ‘marketplace’ whereby farmers could ‘trade’ credits would encourage the adoption of more soil-friendly practices. Ways of regenerating soil include less tillage farming and more legume-growing; growing multi-species swards; grazing-land management; and targeted addition of organic matter to improve soils.

Our impact

Impact related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Learn more about Queen’s University’s commitment to nurturing a culture of sustainability and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through research and education.

UN Goal 13 - Climate action
UN Goal 15 - Life on land

Key Facts

  • Soil acts as a carbon ‘sink’, locking in GHGs that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. Upgrading UK soils, particularly farmland and degraded peatlands, could offset global GHG emissions by 5-10%.
  • Researchers at Queen’s are exploring ways to harness the potential of soil as a carbon store to improve the sustainability of the agri-food sector. Working with farmers in the UK and Italy, they are co-creating solutions to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.
  • United Kingdom
  • Italy
Climate and climate changeSustainable environments and agri-food systems