The Role of Soil Science in Feeding a Growing World

October 14, 2014

Most of us take for granted the abundance of food in our society. We buy food at the grocery, prepare meals in our kitchens, and dine in restaurants without having to till the garden, add nutrients to the soil, plant the seeds, manage the growth, or harvest the food. Farmers are a very important part of our survival in this world and thanks to them, even though the Earth’s population has more than doubled in the last 50 years, we continue to have enough food with only about a 10% increase in farmland. Farmers have increased field crops by breeding better plant varieties, adopting better water management practices, and using commercial fertilizers more wisely. A farmer understands that the health of the farmland is of the utmost importance.

“Nutrients help us plant the seeds of success.”

The Nutrients for Life Foundation is an educational, non-profit that provides FREE information and resources to educators and the public about the role of nutrients in both the production of nutritious, abundant food and the preservation of healthy green spaces. Plant nutrients, especially nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, are also required to keep our parks, gardens, playgrounds, sports fields and golf courses green and healthy in communities from coast to coast. 

In their goal to “Nourish the Planet in the 21st Century,” the Nutrients for Life Foundation has developed modules for elementary, middle and high school classrooms which provide STEM activities and lessons to show how the challenge to feed our world's growing population can be solved with science. The program addresses key objectives from the National Science Education Standards and has been reviewed by the Smithsonian Institution. In addition, the curricula is aligned to Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and all 50 state standards. 

Students take soil samples from a garden in one of the hundreds of YouTube videos available from the Nutrients for Life Foundation website. 

The Nutrients for Life Foundation also administers the Helping Communities Grow fertilizer and soil nutrient community outreach program. This is offered to FFA chapters in good standing. FFA chapters are challenged to investigate and discover the critical role fertilizer plays in improving plant health for an abundant, affordable, and safe food supply. With this gained knowledge, they are to go beyond the classroom and educate their community on the benefits fertilizer and soil nutrients play in food production. Visit the Nutrients for Life Foundation for more information like lesson plans, activities, and videos—all free of charge.

Ag tech takes to the skies.

Thanks to the efforts of the Nutrients for Life Foundation, we can gain a better understanding of the importance of soil nutrients and why farmers use a variety of testing methods to ensure their soils are healthy enough to produce healthy, abundant crops. One new method farmers are beginning to experiment with is the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS’s) in determining the overall health of their many acres of farmland.

Dr. Robert Moorhead, Director of the Geosystems Research Institute at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi, poses with one of the fixed-wing UAS's in their aircraft fleet. 

After learning about UAS’s, our Science Scene Team made a trip to Mississippi State University (MSU) in Starkville, Mississippi, to meet with Dr. Robert Moorhead, Director of the Geosystems Research Institute. Dr. Moorhead explained that UAS’s are lightweight, remote controlled planes with a camera and GPS tracker attached that can be launched into the air and flown over a farmer’s field. Depending on the type of UAS (fixed wing plane or roto copter) and the type of camera (video, still image or infrared), these UAS’s can be used for mapping a farmer’s field and in precision agriculture to pinpoint areas that plants need added nutrients, more or less irrigation, or areas where there may be some animal nuisance issues, saving the farmer many hours of walking the field to make these same determinations on his own.

So, if UAS’s are such a valuable, time-saving tool for farmers, why don’t all farmers use them? As with any flying aircraft, the FAA oversees the flying of UAS’s. At the present time, the FAA only allows a public agency to get a Certificate of Authorization which is an exception to their rules which require aircraft (manned) to be able to see and avoid obstacles. Because the pilots of UAS’s are on the ground and the plane is in the air (unmanned), there is a safety concern involving crop dusters, interstate and highway overpasses, and other issues. Dr. Moorhead is working with the FAA as they lay the groundwork for these new rules for UAS’s.

In addition to the work of Dr. Moorhead at Mississippi State University, there are researchers in other universities across the United States who are working with UAS’s, as well. Check with your local university to see what exciting research they may be doing involving plant health and growth.

Stephanie Miller

With over 25 years experience, Stephanie serves as a senior copywriter, social media director, and senior editor for Science Scene. Stephanie is always on the lookout for new educational and STEM-related opportunities and technology.