Soil ecologists at CSU study how healthy soils lead to sustainable food production

Christina Dennison

Peter Baas and Melanie Lee examining the effects of beneficial bacteria on tomatoes at the CSU greenhouse. (Photo credit: Matthew Wallenstein)
Peter Baas and Melanie Lee examine the effects of beneficial bacteria on tomatoes at the CSU greenhouse. (Photo credit: Matthew Wallenstein)

As the world population increases, so does the demand to grow more food. Researchers studying soil ecology and sustainable agriculture at Colorado State University agree that increased food production needs to continue, but the environmental cost must decrease.

“There are several reasons why we should try and produce more food, but do it in a way that uses less energy and causes less environmental degradation,” said Richard Conant, associate professor and researcher in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.

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Conant’s research in the Natural Resource and Ecology Laboratory at CSU focuses on carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous cycling through the soil. Basic research on soil cycling in the lab is used to understand how soil composition changes during farming and how these changes impact the environment.

Matthew Wallenstein, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecosystem Sciences and Sustainability, conducts research in NREL at CSU, looking at how environmental changes alter the activity of microbes in the soil and how this affects crop productivity and soil ecology. According to Wallenstein, healthy soil ecology can prevent pathogens and decrease the need for chemical applications.

The field of soil ecology has grown over the past several decades, in part due to new technologies and a burgeoning interest from the public. According to Wallenstein, new tools have allowed researchers to study the genetics, proteins and metabolism of microbes present in the soil, which has enhanced understanding of the microorganisms in the soil.

“CSU has really been at the forefront of understanding these interactions between plants, soils and microbes and applying these cutting edge techniques to advance our understanding,” Wallenstein said.

The development of a strong and supportive environment at CSU for studying sustainable agriculture and ecology is driven in part by student interest.

“CSU has been a leader in developing sustainable ag curriculum … I teach the 100 level general crops class and the level of interest that students have to really make a difference and to tackle these challenges is really encouraging,” said Meagan Schipanski, an assistant professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Science.

Schipanski explained that soil ecological processes have often been overlooked in agricultural nutrient management approaches. She studies how nutrients are cycled through the soil and how crop production and nutrient cycling can be optimized for the eastern Colorado region.

Schipanski’s experience managing a CSA farm outside Chicago has given her insight to consider the practicality of her research. She indicated that this experience has driven her collaborative research with farmers focused on soil management.

“As someone who works at the intersection of agriculture and ecology, (CSU) is the perfect place where there are real strengths in both of those areas and people working across them,” Schipanski said.

Conant, Schipanski and Wallenstein all said that basic science research is important for understanding soil ecology, but to promote sustainable agriculture, the related economics, policies and farming practices need to be part of the discussion.

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“It’s one thing to come up with a scientific solution to a problem but if you don’t consider the economic reality it might be impractical,” Wallenstein said.

Conant, Schipanski and Wallenstein are part of a team of researchers that received funding earlier this month from the Office of the Vice President of Research for the Catalyst for Innovative Partnerships program. With this funding, their team is creating the Innovation Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which will focus on developing innovative solutions in sustainable agriculture.

“We’re not just doing experiments, we’re not just doing experiments while talking with farmers about them, and we’re not just doing experiments on farmer’s fields that farmers will buy in to,” Conant said. “We want to take it to the next step where we gain new knowledge that helps people develop innovations that can be applied in the field.”

Collegian Science Beat Reporter Christina Dennison can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @csdennison