TECHNOLOGY

How healthy is farm soil? Check how active their microbes are


But industrial farming puts these microbes at risk. When farmers focus on turning field after field of the same crop, killing unprofitable plants (also known as weeds) with chemicals, the microbiome can become less healthy. These methods, traditional plowing, and the loss of arable land due to city building led to the loss of livable soil. more Flood And drought due to Climate change Makes the situation worse, which upsets the balance of nutrients and organisms in the soil with too much water or too little water.

This is a major problem, as it can lead to a cascade of biodiversity loss, as well as economic losses for farmers. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, published Land Degradation and Restoration Assessment in 2018At least 3.2 billion people are affected by soil degradation. Although not limited to one region, regions in sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia suffer the worst due to industrialization and soil erosion.

A member of the nonprofit soil health group No-till on the Plains, Palen is really passionate about these issues. “Soil is very much a living system,” he says. His group advocates plowing, because they say it causes erosion and destroys the ecosystem within the soil. “I’m not sure that one device will really measure all of the components of healthy soil,” Palin says. But he says the investigation being developed by Washington State University researchers “may help see trends.”

Jenny Kao-Knevin, a professor in Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Sciences, who was not involved in the study, says she sees hope for soil scientists to collaborate with engineers in this way. “The scenario in which this tool could work well is to assess the impact of a management strategy on soil health or soil microbial activity, such as measuring the effect of pesticides or fumigants on soil biological activity,” Kao-Kniffen says. “Another example is the assessment of temporal changes in soil biological activity, with a shift from conventional farming practices to organic farming practices.”

This is the next step envisioned by the study’s authors: developing a probe that can provide readings to farmers in real time. To do this, they make the device portable and easy to insert into the soil. (The current version plugs into a wall and a computer.) Ideally, they would like farmers to get real-time results back on their mobile devices. “The dream is that we know the electrochemical measurements they tell us about the soil, and we can give farmers tools to measure them more directly,” Friesen says, allowing them to adjust practices, such as how pesticides and chemicals are used, if the sensor indicates the soil is not productive.

Although it may take several years, they also hope that their probe will eventually be able to measure other things, such as organic matter and water content. Beyenal envisions a complete database of soil measurements, taken from many different fields, that could eventually be used to create a “soil index,” or a digital scale that could tell farmers how healthy the soil is. “We know soil health is really complex,” says Pinal. “That’s the starting point. We want to give some simple numbers to help people understand it.”


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