I was intrigued by this headline in Farmers Weekly (where else?) – “£2.5M boost for grass that helps prevent floods“. What can it be? A panacea for all our flooding problems – is it superabsorbent? Is it a climate change buster? Yes – it’s Festulolium. Huh? I hear you grunt over your toast and tea.
Yes – Aberystwyth University – to be precise IBERRS, which I believe has evolved from IGER the Institue of Grassland and Environmental Research (a euphemism if ever I heard one – but that’s another story.), has landed a couple of million to research into the benefits of sowing Festulolium to combat flooding, reduce soil erosion and soil compaction. It really is a Supergrass if you believe this hype.
What is Festulolium? According to IBERRS it’s a swarm of natural hybrids formed when Lolium perenne, our ubiquitous agricultural grass Perennial Ryegrass; and Festuca pratensis, Meadow Fescue. In the sense that both Lolium and Festuca pratensis are native, it’s true that Festulolium is a native hybrid. It is disingenuous though to suggest that Festulolium is a common native now. In fact native perennial ryegrass is difficult to find these days, as the agricultural cultivars are everywhere and there is so little grassland with native grass in it. No, Festulolium is just another highly bred agricultural grass. IBERRS make some bold claims about it wondrousness. Festulolium achieved a 51% reduction in run-off compared with other grasses grown alongside. Without finding the details of the research (if indeed they are accessible) I would imagine the “other grasses” are Rye grass cultivars. I would be more interested to see how the soil run-off compared against a mix of native grasses, flowers and shrubs, let alone a native woodland ecosystem or bog.
Perhaps the thing that made my alarm bell ring was this paragraph “Many river catchments are upland grasslands predominating in the wettest areas of the UK, say scientists. They believe if the rates of surface run-off could be reduced and rainfall captured more effectively by grassland soils, then the worst impacts of heavy rainfall down-stream may be reduced.”
The implication is that Festulolium could or should be sown in the uplands. The very act of sowing an agricultural grass involves cultivating the soil (leading to soil erosion, compaction and err run-off.) Plus to get the grass growing properly would involve application of artificial fertiliser, herbicide and doubt Bayer would find some reason – killing slugs perhaps (ah yes big fat profits – that’s the one) to develop a Neonicotinoid-based ubuiquicide that absolutely had to be used on this new crop.
The beauty of this approach is that it avoids having to tackle the effects of other grasses – such as Maize, on which George Monbiot has just written further and better.
It also shows how the concept of ecosystem services is so vulnerable to coruption by Agro-Industrial Technofixes.
Image by Janus (Jan) Kops [Public domain or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Good article as ever Miles.
Your final point brings to mind some of the ongoing concerns about Payments for Ecosystem Services and the fact that this can lead to a focus on single ‘market’ such as water regulation or quality (or even carbon as shown in the Woodland Carbon Code) to the detriment of the broader system and other services.
It will be interesting to see how broader PES systems fair in future PES funding or whether these sort of techno-fixes / ‘ecosystem service optimising solutions’ dominate.
Well, it was only a matter of time, I suppose, Miles…
I guess these “upland grasslands predominating in the wettest areas of the UK” aren’t on a Chiltern, West Berkshire Downs or Quantock scale. So, it’s plough up the purple moor-grass expanding on the drying out, oxidising upland blanket bog of the Pennines, the Antrim Mountains, the Cambrian Mountains, the Monadhliath &c – the ecosystem services of which were previously degraded to deliver sheep headage payments or grow softwoods – in order to afforest same to deliver ‘ecosystem services’; or plough and reseed that same upland blanket bog with a designer grass to deliver ecosystem services? Or one could just restore the blanket bog to restore ecosystem services, but that’s maybe less saleable? What is it with this compulsion for “upland abuse”?
Thanks Dave. No, I don’t think IGER are thinking about the Berkshire Downs for their Festulolium panacea – should it be called the FU grass? I suppose if they did an experiment which showed it was more effective at holding back water in the uplands than Nardus, it might give us something to think about, though at what cost in terms of Megatonnes of soil carbon lost. This ecosystem services thingy is a bit more complicated than agricultural scientists like to think it is.