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Global soil health assessment options to support resilient food systems at the University of Edinburgh


Date & time Nov 22
Ends on Nov 29
The University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Creator LouiseLHarris
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Global soil health assessment options to support resilient food systems at the University of Edinburgh

Exploring ways to monitor soil health, this project will combine scientific evaluation with practical considerations, seeking to develop an affordable, accessible soil health assessment, for use at scale outside academia.

Apply by Thursday January 06 2022 at 12.00

Registration website

Project background

In order to ensure resilient and reliable crop production sufficient to deliver food security for a growing world population, it is important that the physical, chemical, and biological qualities of soils be maintained.

Historically, conventional management of agricultural systems has significantly disrupted the functioning of global soils through intensive management including use of agrochemicals and physical disturbance. Overarching terms such as “Soil Health”, “Soil Performance”, and “Soil Function” are used to describe the characterisation of soils in relation to their properties. Whilst there is no consensus around the terms, and conceptualisation of soil health has changed over time, there is a clear need for those working in global agricultural supply chains to have a robust, practical assessment to aid farmers in making decisions to protect and build soil health.

Soil health cannot be measured directly and numerous indicators exist to assess certain soil functions. Whilst previous studies have developed methodologies that are nationally applicable, indicator measurements associated with a healthy soil will vary depending on the local climate, ecosystem, and soil texture (Bünemann et al., 2018). 

This project will explore options for monitoring soil health using optimal sets of physical, chemical, and biological indicators and how they vary with geolocation and soil type. By combining scientific evaluation with practical considerations for global application, the student will, with the support of the industry partner, Syngenta, seek to deliver an affordable, accessible soil health assessment for use at scale outside of academia. Depending on the outcomes of an initial review, our work could tackle barriers to an affordable, accessible soil health assessment in a number of ways; including closing data gaps, testing field methods, or parameterising existing methods for use in new contexts.

Research questions

What are minimum datasets of indicators required to assess soil health, and how do these vary by agroecological context?

What time horizons are soil health assessments most valid over?

How can this be resolved against management decision information required by farmers?

What are viable, feasible sets of indicators for farmers to assess soil health?

What are measurement protocols for soil health assessment?


Year 1:

Review existing studies studying the impact of agricultural land management on soil health indicators and, building on existing work between the University of Edinburgh and Syngenta, plan year 2 and 3 experiments.

Year 2:

Apply statistical methods to propose minimum indicator sets for assessing soil health. Begin field studies with the industry partner, Syngenta, aiming first to evaluate the practical value of proposed soil indicator sets across a range of agricultural systems and environmental contexts.

Year 3:

Refine approaches for turning soil indicator measurements into globally applicable, accessible and affordable soil health assessments, supported by continuing field studies.


A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills, including meta-analysis, mixed-effects modelling, and soil modelling through direct supervision and courses at the University of Edinburgh.

Syngenta will provide training on field study protocols and methodologies, together with an understanding of different agroecological contexts, and what is practical for farmers in different settings.


Previous study in mathematics or natural sciences, ideally with some previous study of soil ecology. A willingness to apply your knowledge in “real-world” situations. Would suit students from a wide range of backgrounds. Enthusiasm for the subject and a willingness to learn is more important than existing experience or knowledge.


Bünemann, E. K., Bongiorno, G., Bai, Z., et al. (2018) 'Soil quality – A critical review', Soil biology & biochemistry, 120, pp. 105-125.

NRCS-USDA, (n.d.) Soil Health | NRCS Soils. [online] Nrcs.usda.gov. Available at:

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/soils/health/ [Accessed 1 July 2021].

CASE partner: Syngenta Limited


Jon Hillier


[email protected]


Liz Baggs


[email protected]



E4 supervisors are happy to hear from candidates who would wish to adapt the project to their own ideas and research background.

How to Apply

Please find all relevant information, application forms and instructions for referees via -


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