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Geographers at the University of Plymouth have developed environmental forensic techniques that reveal linkages between unsustainable farming and forestry practices, and soil erosion and downstream sedimentation.



Soil is a fundamental resource that is being lost from cropland as a consequence of unsustainable agricultural and forestry practices. Erosion and downstream sedimentation have a major impact on food, water and energy security, yet the linkages between these are poorly understood, and often not clearly defined or recognised in land management strategies.



Environmental forensic tools using isotopic soil and sediment tracers can be used to identify soil erosion hotspots. Cultivation and other land management practices alter isotopic properties of topsoil and such differences can be used as ‘fingerprints’ to track and trace soil movement through land-water systems.

The research team has led innovative work around the short-lived fallout radionuclide, beryllium-7 (Be-7), derived from rainfall, which can be used to detect soil movement, export or loss.



Training programmes led by the team have changed soil management policy and practice at the government level in Vietnam, Malaysia and Morocco. In Vietnam, for example, the tools were used to implement conservation strategies that reduced soil erosion in uplands by 90% and retained sufficient runoff for lowland rice production.  

In remote Maasai communities in degraded pastoral land in northern Tanzania, the team applied their interdisciplinary and participatory methodology to enable a ‘bottom-up’ approach to changing land management practices to support soil conservation.


More information

Institution: University of Plymouth

Researchers: Professor William Blake, Dr Claire Kelly, Dr Alex Taylor

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Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (2023) Turning environmental forensic evidence into effective soil conservation policy. Available at  Last accessed on: <date>