A new research partnership of 24 institutions aims to identify the best way to increase sustainable legume cultivation and consumption across Europe is to be led by Dr Pete Iannetta, from the James Hutton Institute’s Ecological Sciences group.

He is co-ordinator of the TRUE project (TRansition paths to sUstainable legume based systems in Europe), which has just released its latest newsletter. “Of particular interest to UK growers is a paper that examines ‘Plant responses to an integrated cropping system designed to maintain yield whilst enhancing soil properties and biodiversity’.

“This recognises that the intensification of arable production since the 1950s has resulted in increases in yield – but this has been only at significant cost to the environment, raising serious concerns about long-term consequences for the sustainability of food production systems.

“While a range of policies and practices have been put in place to mitigate negative effects in terms of pollution, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity, their efficacy has not been properly quantified. Whole-system effects of management change are rarely studied and so trade-offs and conflicts between different components of the agricultural system are poorly understood,” he said.

“A long-term field platform was, therefore, established in which conventional arable management was compared with a low-input, integrated cropping system designed to maintain yields whilst enhancing biodiversity and minimising environmental impact.

“Over the first rotation, only winter wheat yielded less under integrated management; yield was maintained for the remaining five crops – spring and winter barley, winter oilseed rape, potato and field beans – suggesting a negligible impact on economic returns.

“Beneficial broad-leaved weeds were significantly more abundant in the integrated management system across all crops, whereas grass weeds showed no overall response to treatment.

“Soil carbon, pH and soil concentrations of the main plant growth-limiting macronutrients were enhanced under the integrated management system which was, therefore, successful in meeting the goals to enhance biodiversity and reduce environmental impact without jeopardising crop yields,” added Dr Iannetta.