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Durham alumus, Sir Tim Smit KBE, founder of the Eden Project, recently returned to deliver the keynote address at Durham’s RURAL conference.

Hosted over two days, RURAL (Research Underpinning Rural Advances & Livelihoods), welcomed academics and leaders from business, government, and third sectors organisations, to showcase three of Durham University’s major interdisciplinary initiatives to transform sustainability and heritage management in the North East, each with wider global impact.


Charlotte Russell, The Eden’s Projects former Head of Learning and a commercial-scale organic farmer of 30-years, opened the first session in conversation with Durham’s Professor Karen Johnson, on the theme, ‘A nation that rebuilds its soils rebuilds itself”.

Prof Johnson’s Soil Microbiome Augmentation and Restoration Technologies Lab (SMART Lab) is being established at Durham with £3m funding from the University’s Strategic Research Fund (SRF). Its aim is to develop a new field of nature-based environmental engineering of the soil microbiome to reverse fifty years of degradation and significantly contribute to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals around hunger, health, biodiversity, resilient infrastructure, access to water, and carbon capture.

Heritage 360

The Heritage 360 discussion was led by Professor Giles Gasper, joined by Durham colleagues Dr Dan Lawrence (Landscape Archaeologist), Dr Rebecca Senior (Conservation Scientist), and Dr Amanda Herbert (Early Modern Historian), focusing on the challenges of preserving or restoring heritage landscapes which have been impacted by so many eras of human activity.

Heritage 360 is £2.8m SRF investment, to develop and nurture a new research field at the interface of cultural and natural heritage by bringing significant interdisciplinary expertise to Durham to work with existing colleagues in the fields of History, Modern Languages & Cultures, Archaeology, Geography, Chemistry, Biosciences, and Libraries & Collections.

North East Centre for Crop and Soil Innovation (NECCSI)

The final panel discussed the role of agri-tech in creating a prosperous rural economy. Janice Rose (Northumberland County Council), Dr David George (Newcastle University), Paul Flynn (Director of Agriculture at East Durham College), and Anne Murrell (Director of the UK National Geothermal Centre), joined Durham’s Professor Ari Sadanandom to discuss his vision for NECCSI –which is exploring using net-zero geothermal heat under the North East to power vertical farms that would enable growing crops that are normally imported, as a means to improving security and environmental sustainability of food supply.

Responding to all three discussions, Sir Tim Smit praised the Durham researchers for being ahead of their times, saying “the work you are undertaking here isn’t just important – it is quite essential”.

In a rallying cry about the existential threat of climate change, and the challenge of not only using Earth’s resources more sustainably, but developing a circular economy that reduces waste – since, he argued, 37% of everything that is either mined or grown gets wasted – Sir Tim called on scientists to do better at asking the right questions and communicating their learning more simply: “People want great stories”, he said, “make the dream bigger, be brave about what the possibilities are”.

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North East Centre for Crop and Soil Innovation