The Soils Renaissance – Perspectives and Prospects
Dr. Ray Weil
University of Maryland
The Soils Renaissance of the 21st century has seen the number of scientific publications on soils and public interest in soils soar. It has been marked in scientific circles by special issues of the premier scientific journals, such as the 2004 issue of Science under the title Soil -the Last Frontier, and in the broader public by at least two feature length films devoted entirely to telling “the story of soils” (Dirt: The Movie, and The Symphony of Soil). Acknowledging this renaissance (but hopefully not capping it off), the United Nations designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils. Yet, at the same time, formal soil science academic programs and departments were shrinking and, in some cases, disappearing at universities in North America and around the world. It has become increasingly recognized that soil science has a central role to play in understanding and managing biogeochemical processes, climate change, biodiversity, water resources, and other great natural resource challenges. One of the joys (and challenges) of teaching soils is to use this complex system to help students see connections and become aware of context.
Ecosystems research – including agro-ecosystems, and by extension, food security research – is being dramatically transformed by the emergence of new insights and paradigms about what we long thought were settled basic truths. The conceptual changes – some completely upending established models – are partially driven by the development and adoption of new analytical tools, ranging from metagenomics to x-ray tomography and abetted by increasingly sophisticated statistical analyses of the resulting huge amounts of data. The application of these tools to soils questions in ecosystems research may not always be carried out by those that would identify themselves as soil scientists. As these scientists grapple with how particular soil processes influence ecosystems, it is important that they have internalized a broad and integrated view of soil science. Whatever specialty they bring to the ecosystem analysis team – molecular biology, chemistry, physics, hydrology, microbiology, pedology – scientists also need to see the context of their specialty within the larger complex soil system. Even in interdisciplinary teams it is important that each member be able to keep sight of the whole- that the soil physicist understand the landscape, that the molecular biologist understand soil horizons, etc. Furthermore, the integration of plant and soil sciences has never been more compelling. The cover crop revolution sweeping North American agriculture is all about managing plants to improve soils – rather than the other way around. In fact, the boundary between plant and soil becomes blurred as we learn more about the rhizosphere and plant-microbial community interactions. Is a mycorrhizal network plant or soil? What about the layer of root exudates that shapes the physics, chemistry and biology of the soil system? In most contexts (hydroponics and Mars soils, notwithstanding), plants cannot exist, function or truly be studied in the absence of soils – and vice versa.
Reconsidering Perennials in Dryland Cropping Systems
Dr. Mark Liebig
USDA Agricultural Research Service, Mandan, North Dakota
Projection of land use trends suggest a limited role for perennials in conventional crop production systems, and yet cropping systems are increasingly looked upon to provide ecosystem services beyond the provision of food, feed, fiber and fuel. Supporting, regulating, and cultural ecosystem services directly or indirectly benefit human welfare, and accordingly, should be included within a larger rubric of expectations from agricultural landscapes. Such expectations complement the multiple functions of perennials, whether for soil fertility/tilth enhancement, targeted remediation, wildlife habitat, or water quality protection. Moreover, anticipated changes in climate in most regions of North America highlight the important role of permanent ground cover under a more vigorous hydrological cycle. Agroecosystems in the northern Great Plains, for example, are undergoing a transition toward more intensified production mainly due to climate-driven shifts in greater early-season water availability and an extended growing season. This transition to a wetter, warmer, and more variable climate will increase the susceptibility of soil degradation on agricultural lands through increased rates of erosion, nutrient loss, and salinization. Permanent ground cover, an attribute of most perennial grasses, can serve to buffer climate-induced stresses while concurrently improving soil conditions to facilitate agroecosystem resilience. Developing science-based guidance on how to value non-provisioning ecosystem services from perennials under a changing climate is a key prerequisite for their increased adoption in crop production systems. Accordingly, soil scientists can play a key role in providing this guidance, as many ecosystem service benefits associated with perennials are derived from changes to soil properties and processes.
Presentation at the CSSS-PRSSS banquet on May 18
History, Ecology and Wine Pairing
By Don Gayton
About Don Gayton
Don Gayton’s passion is the ecology of grasslands and dry forests. He has two decades of involvement with grassland monitoring and fire-maintained ecoystem restoration in British Columbia’s southern interior. He obtained a B.Sc. in Agronomy from Washington State University and an M.Sc. in Plant Ecology from the University of Saskatchewan. Don’s technical publications include Impacts of Climate Change on BC’s Biodiversity, Ground Work: Basic Concepts in Ecological Restoration, and British Columbia Grasslands: Monitoring Vegetation Change. Gayton’s writing includes award-winning books of popular non-fiction including Interwoven Wild, Kokanee, Landscapes of the Interior and The Wheatgrass Mechanism. He is the winner of the US National Outdoor Book Award, and has been shortlisted twice for the BC Book Awards. He lives in Summerland, British Columbia, where he works as a consulting ecologist.