30 March 2023

Researchers in the U.S. launch five-year soil health survey


Four U.S. universities are launching a massive soil analysis project. The initiative aims to counter land degradation which is estimated to cost $67 bn a year in America

by Matteo Cavallito


Developing technologies to assess soil sustainability and health, tracking the impact of climate change on the soil itself and providing tools to ensure food security. These are the goals of SoilTech, the new Center for Soil Technologies launched by the National Science Foundation, a research agency of the U.S. government. Launched in February this year, SoilTech employs experts from four universities: Iowa State University, the University of Southern California, the University of Connecticut and the University of Washington.

The Center, a statement says, “will be the first of its kind to develop in-situ and remote sensing and analysis tools that can share real-time soil dynamics data with the nation at-large.” The first part of the project has a five-year duration.

Pesticides, nutrients and carbon at the center of investigation

Soil analyses, the project leaders explain, will be used primarily to highlight soil properties including water and organic matter content and the presence of contaminants. The Center will develop targeted projects aimed at understanding the effects of carbon sequestration and determining optimal irrigation patterns. At the same time, “Researchers will simultaneously develop visualization tools to share observations broadly with the agriculture, water management, and infrastructure management communities.”

In detail, a Iowa State University statement explains, the 20 researchers involved will share tasks in developing different initiatives.

Researchers from the University of Southern California, for example, will work on sensors and data analysis. At the same time, their colleagues from the University of Connecticut and the University of Washington will engage in monitoring soil health, plant nutrients and toxic contaminants, respectively, on the one hand, and in analyzing satellite imagery for ground observation, local precision agriculture networks and ground-based sensors, on the other. Finally, Iowa State researchers will be involved in carbon capture analysis and pesticide mapping, among other things.

Soil research is increasingly relevant

Soil studies have become “a huge area of focus,” explained Jonathan Claussen, director of Iowa State’s research group. “The global population is growing so quickly. There are crop stresses with climate change. If we want to feed the global population, we have to take care of soils.” The issue is of general concern, points out his colleague Carmen Gomes, professor of mechanical engineering at the same university. “Agriculture, defense, energy, the environment – all these industries understand the importance of soils,” she explains. “Soils are the future.”

It is not surprising, then, that the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have established a $13 million research program called “Signals in the Soil.” The goal is to improve understanding of land dynamics through innovation in sensory systems and improved prediction models.

U.S. soil erosion costs $67 billion a year

To date, said Earthworm Foundation, an institution based in Nyon, Switzerland, land degradation remains a major problem in the United States. Currently, the foundation wrote, “soil erosion in the United States is estimated to cost $67 billion a year.” This amount “is not paid directly by farmers or businesses, but typically born by the public sector, consumers and future generations.”

The figure refers to an analysis published in 2021 by the Rockefeller Foundation and represents only a fraction of the extra costs associated with food production in the United States.

Considering factors such as the health impacts of poor nutrition, pollution and environmental damage, loss of biodiversity, economic and social injustice in the production chain and more, the study points out, the total value of negative externalities is estimated to be $2.1 trillion. This is almost double the direct spending on food purchases – $1.1 trillion – recorded in America in 2019.