Shining A Light On Soils

Researchers look at what’s in soil to help farmers improve crops and their lives.
Karin Heineman, Executive Producer

(Inside Science) -- "We’re working on various applications of spectroscopy in low resource settings. So, what that means is using optical technology to really understand the chemical makeup of different materials,” said Matt Keller, a research scientist at Intellectual Ventures Laboratory.

One material Keller looks at is soil -- soil that farmers need to grow crops, to feed families, and sell at markets. Soil composition is important for producing bumper crops year after year.

“The idea here is when people understand what’s in their soil -- so, they know, you know, nitrogen, phosphorous, carbon, and all of those good things -- then they can get dramatic improvements in their crop yields by using the right kind of fertilizer that’s matched exactly to their soil,” said Keller.

It turns out that fertilizers don't always work the way they should to help improve crops.

“So, for example, one of the fertilizers that has been recommended by governments over the years, without knowing what the soil is like, actually has been making certain soils very acidic to the point where, you know, additional fertilizer doesn’t help because the soil is too acidic.

“So, the idea here is by bringing the testing to farmers with much lower cost devices, then the productivity by small farmers can be boosted and they can improve their incomes and therefore their livelihoods,” said Keller.

When farmers in places like sub-Saharan Africa cannot grow enough food, many resort to deforestation or using land not suited for crops. The result has been problems with soil erosion and poor nutrients within soil. Keller wants to help them farm more sustainably and reliably.

“We can basically input the spectral data, which can tell you, you know, how much of certain elements or what the other physical properties are of the soil and then merge that up with information about maybe historical weather patterns, information about what local crops work well in different soil conditions, then make the soil spectra outputs one part of that and then the overall outcome then is okay, so what is the optimal treatment in terms of fertilizer. What is the best plant to put here?” said Keller.

The work Keller does could be instrumental in helping farmers grow better crops, especially in places where most of the population depends on local agriculture to survive.

“But getting, you know, crops to grow, you know, to feed your family and provide income is extremely important. I mean it’s absolutely critical for their lives,” concluded Keller.

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Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV.