A new business collaboration in the Humber region looks set to create a “pop up rainforest” that will help farmers plant a diverse range of cover crops that will capture carbon, reduce flooding risk and improve soil health.
The Sustainable Landscapes Humber Project has been set up in collaboration between Yorkshire Water, Nomad Foods-owned Birds Eye, Future Food Solutions and Hull and Teesside universities. It will see more than 40 farmers across East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire promote new cover crops to improve the natural environment.
The project will focus on “pop up rainforests”, whereby a diverse range of cover crops are planted over farmland to capture carbon from the atmosphere. Early trials also show that this process can increase soil health and organic matter by up to 40 tonnes per hectare, which in turn sequesters more than four tonnes of atmospheric carbon annually.
Yorkshire Water’s asset strategy manager Andrew Walker said: “Growing cover crops to increase soil organic matter is one of the most effective ways of combatting the major environmental issues we face today. In just seven weeks, they generate enough carbon-sequestering organic material to make a significant dent in atmospheric CO2.
“If grown on a global scale, arable farming could become the first sector of the economy to be net carbon zero.”
Research suggests that improving organic soil matter by just 1% would enable agricultural land to store an extra 200,000 litres of water per hectare.
However, soil organic matter has fallen by around 50% in the last 60 years. The organisations involved in the project hope that the cover crops will restore these levels. Again, pre-project trials have shown that soil organic matter can more than double in five years, albeit from a low base of 3% to 6%.
Additionally, the project organisers believe the cover crops will play a crucial role in reducing flooding risk in Hull.
Future Food Solutions’ director Paul Rhodes added: “The plants’ root structure holds the topsoil in place reducing erosion, and the increase in organic matter means less farm inputs are required, enabling farmers to grow food more efficiently and profitably.
“Of the inputs that are required, less are leached away into the waterways, making for healthier rivers and watercourses and this has a positive knock-on effect on local flora and fauna.”
Gaps in the trees
The report calls for a myriad of nature-based solutions to help capture and sequester carbon, but warned that mass tree planting could inadvertently harm other carbon stores like peatlands.
However, the UK Government spent almost £20m less on tree planting in the financial year 2017-18 than it did in 2014-15, according to an analysis of official figures by Friends of the Earth (FotE).
In response, some corporates are focusing on biodiversity to assist with the nation’s and their own carbon goals.
Yorkshire Water has been joined by the eight other major water and sewerage providers, including, Anglian Water and United Utilities, to commit to planting 11 million trees in order to improve the natural environment across 6,000 hectares of English land.
The tree-planting initiative will assist the delivery of a carbon-neutral water industry by 2030.