Derry professor only Irish person appointed to new Soil Board

A Professor of Practice at the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s University Belfast has been appointed to a top EU panel of experts to help drive forward solutions to the climate crisis, in particular the key role that soil health can play.

Prof John Gilliland OBE has been appointed to the EU Mission Board on Soil, one of only 15 people selected from around the world. A total of 75 experts were appointed across five mission boards from over 1,000 applications internationally. Dr Gilliland is the only person from the island of Ireland to sit on the Soil Board, which will be operational until 2027.

The aim of the EU soil mission is to “lead the transition towards healthy soils by 2030” in view of the central importance of soil health in biodiversity, food production, sustainable agriculture and carbon storage. Specific goals include developing a framework for soil monitoring in Europe; the prevention of pollution and erosion; conserving carbon stocks; restoring degraded soils; and raising awareness in society about the importance of soil.

The EU Mission Boards were established to tackle five major global challenges, largely connected to the environmental emergency – adaptation to climate change; a ‘soil deal’ for Europe; climate-neutral and smart cities; restoration of oceans and waters – as well as a commitment to tackling cancer.

Prof John Gilliland examines a soil sample as part of the ArcZERO research project.

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A former President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union and Chair of DEFRA’s Rural Climate Change Forum, Prof Gilliland is a well-known figure in local and national agrifood as a leading businessman, policy advocate, farmer and scientist. He was appointed an honorary ‘Professor of Practice’ at IGFS and the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University last year.

He is currently Director of Agriculture & Sustainability at the animal-nutrition company Devenish Nutrition and collaborates with IGFS on research projects aimed at improving the sustainability of agriculture, including the ArcZERO project, which is accelerating seven pilot farms across NI towards Net Zero.

At his Inaugural Lecture at Queen’s University earlier this year, Prof Gilliland advocated a public-private partnership to incentivise and assist NI farmers in reducing their carbon footprint but also to help them avail of opportunities such as carbon credits.

Prof Gilliland said: “It is a privilege to have been selected from so many, to help deliver such an important task. Without our soil and its health, we as a society have nothing. As a father and a grandfather, I feel it is incumbent on my generation to start to right the wrongs of the past, if successive generations are to have a viable future.

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“I hope my experience as a practitioner, taking the best of science, rubbing the corners off it, and applying it in a manner that my farming peers can, and are, embracing – as seen in the extraordinary 91% uptake of Northern Ireland’s new Soil Nutrient Health Scheme – can help further this level of farmer engagement right across Europe. I very much look forward to working as a team member, to helping others, while keeping my feet firmly on our soil.”

Director of IGFS, Professor Nigel Scollan said: “To have one of our key people appointed to this level of the European Commission is fantastic and great testament to John’s experience and wealth of knowledge.

“It’s also an acknowledgement of the key role that soil has to play in climate-change mitigation – not only in terms of carbon capture but in creating ‘natural capital’ such as enhanced biodiversity and reduced pollution.”