Feature Articles

Soil science anchors many environmental efforts

March 23, 2007:

Soil science is the foundation of agriculture and environment research

If you take a look at much of the agriculture and land-based environmental research currently underway across Canada, you'll likely find a team that includes a soil scientist. A renewed interest in soil science has the potential to create more interest in overall soil conservation efforts.

"With a multidisciplinary approach you can take on some of the bigger issues" says Dr. Gary Parkin, an associate professor with the University of Guelph. "This includes strict soil research of course, but also other areas that have meteorological, microbial, physical, chemical and biological aspects to them."

Soil science is connected to all environmental research. As the buffer between the atmosphere and the water, soils are the base by which everything grows.

What lies beneath

Greenhouse gas emissions and global warming are two terms that most Canadians have at least some familiarity with. However all emissions into the air start at the ground level, even the ground underneath the water. That's why much of the environmental research around climate change has soil science at its core.

"The ability of the Canadian ecosystem to take up carbon really falls under the area of soils science," says Dr. Brian Amiro, Head of the Soil Science Department with the University of Manitoba. "For example we do research on boreal forests and tundra, on release of nitrous oxide and on the effects of forest fires – all with the health of the soil as the baseline."

Parkin says that placing soil science under a land resources umbrella as it is at the University of Guelph, gives research the people power and the funding scope to tackle big issues such as greenhouse gas production.

"There is so much ongoing environmental research in which a healthy soil base is needed," he says. "Here our research teams track microbes using DNA, we look at the impacts of GMOs on soil characteristics. We look at planting poplar trees over finished landfill sites to evapo-transpire water to reduce contamination. All this seemingly unrelated research involves a team of scientists that look to soil as an important factor."

Team-based approach

Soil science research dates back to the late 19th Century, with soil testing chemical analysis developed in from the 1930s-1960s, and improvements made in the last part of the 20th Century. Soil science's focus on process makes the discipline an ideal partner with those who create products.

"As a discipline, we've been very fortunate in terms of research funding in part because of increased collaboration in holistic types of research," says Amiro. "Soil research is almost always tied to another part of the ecosystem as a land or animal issue."

"We rarely work alone anymore," agrees Dr. Joann Whalen, a professor at McGill University. "We are called on by other research areas because the soil is connected to everything. Take for example the biotech industries. Nothing will grow to support these industries unless the soil remains healthy."

Another example of the team-based approach is the Green Crop network. This group is focused on developing or selecting crops that will improve sustainability and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture. The team-based research approach, with funding from government, academia and industry looks to develop crops that produce fewer nitrous oxide emissions, flourish with increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and can be the basis for bio-based products.

"This network is a fabulous group," says Whalen. "They try to reduce carbon dioxide using green plants. They are drawing in environmental research from across Canada to use soils and plants in a better way."

Complex material

"Soil is a very complicated material, more so than even the human body in terms of materials it is made of," says Parkin. "If you think of all of the chemical and biological interactions going on, then add in fertilizer, manure, acid rain, and so on, it makes it a very difficult material to study unless you use a multidisciplinary approach."

Soil research isn't a stand-alone issue because anything that will affect the soil can also affect the atmosphere and adjacent water bodies. Amiro references collaboration with Ducks Unlimited, saying that soil conservation efforts is in a way also conserving ducks.

"How the wetland forms and how they are tied into the agro-ecosystems really ties into soil science," he says. "Ducks Unlimited is not a group that you automatically think of as benefiting from soil conservation, however research on agronomic practices and how water use will ultimately affect wetlands requires a group effort that includes research on the health of the soils."

Dr. Dan Pennock, a professor with the University of Saskatchewan, agrees. "Think of all of the wetlands in Western Canada, including sloughs," he says. "We think we know a lot about them and we actively manage them. Farmers may drain them, Ducks Unlimited restores them but we need to look at them from an overall environmental perspective to see the impact of those activities on soil health, animal health and on greenhouse gas emissions."

Whalen says that as a team they are able to look at use of soils in a better way, and learn to grow better and stronger plants. "We now look more at how we can transform plants into new and interesting non-food products. We look at how we can grow ethanol, bio-plastic and bio-chemicals, burning plants for clean industry. But the soil remains the base."

Emerging research

Whalen says that energy-based research also requires a soils component. As the interest in bio-fuels increases, soils could be seen as the medium to grow the industry, with crops as the end product that could help guarantee energy security. "There is a lot of promise for soil scientists to work with social scientists to determine how the research we do can have a real impact on society," she says.

Multidisciplinary research is able to address research gaps in soil biology and soil chemistry while working with other scientific disciplines to address environmental issues.

However a multidisciplinary approach may help contribute to environmental and agricultural solutions in developing areas of the world. Soil erosion and soil health and their impact on crop production remain critical issues in developing countries. Research that expands into areas such as air quality and carbon emissions on a global level may help offer a greater understanding of why conserving soil health is important.