Soil Scientists Lay the Groundwork for a Healthier Food System

Authors: Ali Schultheis and Dr. Deirdre Griffin-LaHue

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.

Tractor in a trial field
Harvest in the soil management trial at the WSU Mount Vernon NWREC. Image: Deirdre Griffin LaHue

Dr. Deirdre Griffin-LaHue, soil scientist at WSU Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center and Soils and Cropping Systems team lead explained the collaborative nature of the Soil to Society project: “Many food companies are increasingly focusing on the sustainability of their supply chains in addition to the quality of their products. Farmers also increasingly recognize the importance of soil health in the productivity and resilience of their operations. We want to look at the soil health benefits these grain crops can provide in rotation with other crops as well as how to manage these crops to maximize soil health functions, farm profits, and nutritional quality.”

Through the Soil to Society project, Drs. Deirdre Griffin-LaHue, Gabriel LaHue, and Clark Neely are conducting trials in Mount Vernon, WA and Pullman, WA. These trials will explore how soil management, crop rotation, and nutrient management affect soil health, crop productivity and nutritional quality in locations with contrasting environmental and soil conditions. To identify crop varieties that will work well in their respective food and cropping systems, soil scientists are working closely with the project’s plant breeders, who are experts in varietal specifics.

Mount Vernon researchers are investigating the effects of managing winter wheat and spring barley with varying tillage intensities, residue management, cover crops, and organic matter inputs like compost. An additional trial is assessing potential soil, weed suppression, and pollinator benefits of cereal buckwheat in rotation with and intercropped with diversified vegetable systems. The Pullman trials are utilizing the more regionally relevant crops of winter wheat, spring barley, and winter pea. Dr. Clark Neely is running these trials and experimenting with tillage intensity, liming treatments, and residue management treatments.

In addition to these more complex cropping system trials, the Soils and Cropping Systems team is conducting micronutrient fertilization trials to provide guidance to growers on best practices to increase grain micronutrient content.  In Mount Vernon, quinoa was just recently planted and treated with no micronutrient application, soil-applied micronutrients, and micronutrients applied at heading. The Pullman micronutrient trials focus on winter wheat and winter pea, using similar micronutrient treatments: no micronutrient application, soil-applied micronutrients, micronutrients applied at top-dress in early spring, and micronutrients applied at heading.

Researchers are monitoring the response variables of crop yield, grain protein content, and bread baking quality, as well as grain iron, zinc, and manganese content. Analyzing these three minerals is particularly important as they are greatly affected by soil acidification, and affect soil organisms that drive important nutrient cycling processes and metal bioavailability. There are also high rates of zinc and iron deficiency in eaters throughout the world and thus these micronutrients are ones that Soil to Society plant breeders are working to increase in their breeding lines and that project food scientists and nutritionists identified as priorities to focus on.

Man in field with probe sensor in soil
Johns Hopkins undergraduate, Justin Sontag, measuring the moisture level in Dr. Clark Neely’s field trials in Pullman, WA. Image: Ali Schultheis

Last month, soil ecologist Dr. Katalin Szlavecz, her PhD student Rebecca Klein, and undergraduate Justin Sontag traveled the 2500 miles from Johns Hopkins University to Washington State. They are experts in soil meso- and macrofauna ecology who stopped at Soil to Society test plots in both Pullman and Mount Vernon to take samples that will be analyzed for soil organisms, including earthworms, mites, and collembola.  Samples for nematode and microbiome communities were also collected in conjunction with soil health analyses, like microbial respiration and soil carbon pools.

For each cropping system, enterprise budgets will be developed and used to conduct economic analyses for all management scenarios to weigh changes in input costs and revenue (e.g., changes in fuel use, cost of cover crop seed, foregone income from selling crop residue as straw) against any changes in crop yield or potential increases or decreases in crop value due to changes in nutritional quality. At the conclusion of these trials in 2024, soil scientists, agronomists, plant breeders, and economists will work together to develop and disseminate management recommendations and Extension materials that are tailored to regional precipitation patterns, soil pH, and crop rotations for farmers to maximize soil health, crop economics, and nutritional quality. The results from the multi-year field trials for each crop and management system will be shared with farmers and other stakeholders through two regional field days each in western and eastern Washington and through WSU Extension publications and the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast.

The Soil to Society grant is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Sustainable Agricultural Systems (SAS) program. The SAS Soil to Society project involves over 20 researchers from Washington State University and Johns Hopkins University, and evaluators from Kansas State University to improve the soil quality where these crops are grown, develop more nutritional varieties and products that can be brought to market, and evaluate the impact of these foods on human health. By bringing together soil scientists, plant breeders, food scientists, and health researchers, the Soil to Society grant will cross disciplines to develop holistic agricultural management strategies and healthy, affordable food products to meet the needs of diverse individuals and communities.

This article is part of a series on the Soil to Society project.  This series will explore the work of each project team, highlighting the different areas of collaboration across disciplines that work this project toward its common goal of creating a healthier food system and human population. Articles in this series will be released monthly- mark your calendars for Tuesday July 18th so you don’t miss the next one.

To learn more about the Soil to Society project and receive updates, go to their website, sign up for their quarterly newsletter, and follow @soiltosociety on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.


2 comments on "Soil Scientists Lay the Groundwork for a Healthier Food System"
  1. Engineering, Extruding, and Elevating Whole-Grain Based Foods | CSANR | Washington State University says:

    […] 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 […]

  2. […] 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 […]

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