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CSU looks into soil for higher food production and cleaner air

To get a clearer picture of global issues, like global warming and food supply, researchers are zooming in to microbes.

Researchers at the Colorado State University’s Innovation Center for Sustainable Agriculture are looking at microbial communities in soil to find ways to improve crop yields and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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“It’s estimated that agricultural activities contribute about 10-15 percent to total global greenhouse gas emissions,” post-doctoral fellow with ICSA Cynthia Kallenbach wrote in an email to the Collegian. 

Majority of these emissions (63 percent) come “directly from soil as nitrous oxide … a greenhouse gas much more potent than CO2,” Kallenbach wrote.

Microscopic organisms in the soil may be a large link on the path to solving the problem.

Microbes process dead plant matter. Some of the carbon from these dead plants remains in the soil and some is released by microbes back into the environment.

During last year’s Paris Climate Change Conference, participants signed the 4/1000 Initiative, which aims to increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil. This, in turn, would reduce the amount of the CO2 that is being released.

While processing the dead plant matter, microbes also release nutrients, such as nitrogen, into the soil. These nutrients are absorbed by and enable crops to grow.

“The more active microbes are, the more they’re … making nutrients available for crops,” Kallenbach said in an interview with the Collegian.

Thus, in addition to playing a role in global warming, microbes are playing an even bigger role in food production.

“The reason that (the ICSA) got together is because we’re all passionate about addressing one of the big challenges that we face in the coming decades … (which is) the need to increase food production to meet the needs of 9.7 billion people by the year 2050,” said Matt Wallenstein, director of ICSA.

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Microbial communities help farmers maximize crop yields with biology rather than with chemistry, Wallenstein said.

Another problem in food supply is food waste. But, according to Wallenstein, food waste is just one of many challenges in meeting the growing food demand.

“Food waste is a really important issue,” Wallenstein said. “It’s not the only issue.”

Solving this problem alone would not be enough to produce enough food for the 9.7 billion people, he said.

It appears that, sometimes, small things like microbes, can provide big answers.

Collegian Reporter Eleonora Yurkevich can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter at @EleonoraWriter.

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