Crop combinations can boost phosphorus levels

Combining crops in the field can help make phosphorus (P) in the soil available to plants and so reduce reliance on artificial P from fertilisers, a consortium of research bodies has claimed.

Crops: intercropping is a traditional farming practice - image: USDA
Crops: intercropping is a traditional farming practice - image: USDA

The Organic Phosphorus Utilization in Soils (OPUS) group, made up of researchers from the James Hutton Institute, Rothamsted Research and Lancaster University, is investigating combinations of plants with the ability to release organic acids and enzymes from roots, which interact in soil to unlock P bound to minerals and organic matter, converting it to a form that plants can use.

Dr Courtney Giles, a post-doctoral researcher on the project, said: "The benefits of intercropping are clear in other contexts too, like the control of pests and disease or nitrogen use, but we have the first concrete evidence on how intercropping or these specific traits could affect P use."

JHI rhizosphere scientist on the project Dr Tim George added: "Intercropping, and all its inherent benefits, is actually a traditional farming practice, which became unfashionable when agriculture became industrialized and focused on monoculture production."

The OPUS project is organising an international workshop on to discuss how harnessing soil phosphorus dynamics could address global P scarcity, to be held in Cumbria in September. George and Giles will demonstrate P use from cereal and legume intercropping at the James Hutton Institute LEAF Technical Day in June.


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