Soil to Society is not just a grant, but a strategy of thinking that addresses gaps in current knowledge and between research disciplines. The pipeline strategy traces the flow of nutrients from agricultural systems and food production to human consumption, culminating in the synthesis of more sustainable agricultural management strategies and healthy, affordable food products to meet the needs of diverse individuals and communities. It is a novel way of thinking, especially within traditionally separate research areas in academia. For this reason, one of the main objectives of this Soil to Society grant is to move forward this strategy of thought by introducing students, teachers, and farmers to the pipeline strategy in an educational setting.
Throughout this Soil to Society series, we’ve discussed the grant’s goal of breeding varieties of wheat, barley, quinoa, buckwheat, lentils, and peas that are more nutritious and making new, desirable foods with them. Now what about the “Society” side of Soil to Society? The Population Nutrition and Social Science team is answering society-level questions by exploring consumption behaviors, their implications for human nutrition, and identifying strategies to get Americans to eat more of the adapted target crops.
WSU extension and research faculty recently wrapped up a multi-year High-Value Horticulture and Processing internship program. In total, 24 interns were hosted by WSU in the summers of 2018, 2019, and 2022. Support for the project came from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates (NIFA REEU) program. Our WSU team worked at the intersection of sustainable food production, processing technology, and food safety to provide undergraduates nationwide with life-changing research and extension experiences.
We are halfway through our Soil to Society series, so let’s do a quick recap. Following along the Soil to Society pipeline, this grant is working to identify soil-conscious cultivation practices with the Soil and Cropping Systems team, breed varieties of wheat, barley, buckwheat, quinoa, lentils, and peas with the Plant Breeding team, and engineer products that utilize these nutrient rich crop varieties with the Food Science team. Now, we must determine whether the more nutritious varieties correlate to better health outcomes in human consumers.
Over the last three months, we have discussed the groundbreaking scope of the Soil to Society grant and ongoing work by our Soils and Cropping Systems and Plant Breeding Teams. But what is the point of breeding better grain and legume varieties if farmers have nowhere to sell their harvest? Crops must be marketable in order for farmers to integrate these varieties into their current rotations. For this reason, our Food Science Team is working to develop a diverse and innovative suite of flavorful, affordable, and nutritious food products accessible to consumers from all income levels.
What makes food better? Through the Soil to Society grant, we believe that breeding for increased health and nutritive value while improving agronomic and end-use qualities creates better food and a foundation for an accessible food system. Currently, WSU and USDA plant breeders are developing new varieties of barley, wheat, peas, lentils, quinoa and buckwheat with enhanced health and nutritive value through the Soil to Society grant. Each plant breeder is working on one or two of the above crops, with nutrition goals specific to the crop.
Healthy food cannot be made in an incubator. It requires healthfulness to be implemented in every step of the production process: from cultivation to consumption. The Soil to Society grant is working to produce more nutritious, whole grain-based food products starting from the ground up. This starts with our Soils and Cropping Systems team, who are experimenting with the roles of environment, soil, and cropping systems management on soil health, farm economics, and the nutritional content of grain and legume crops. Doing so requires research to be done in collaboration, instead of in silos.
Though we are what we eat, there is minimal research available on how different players within the food system interact to influence food availability and human health. Noted barriers to this research and to a broader understanding of agriculture’s role in societal health include a historical separation of the involved scientific disciplines, and an economic incentive to focus on crop yield rather than nutrition. Reducing those barriers not only improves future research, but also the robustness, affordability, and accessibility of our food system.
Washington State has nearly 15 million acres of farmland with around 39,000 operating farms, each producing necessary agricultural commodities. A few of the most well-known crops that are produced and distributed from Washington State are apples, cherries, hops, raspberries, and pears. Even when traveling across the country, I can find Chelan apples, which shows