Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Soil samples in Bradfield Hall. Cornell's Soil Health Team works on measuring the conditions of soil, working with many different organizations, including the Department of Agriculture.

April 19, 2019

Cornell Lab Digs Deep Into World Soil Health

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Kirsten Kurtz’s job is to sort through soil. She isn’t just digging through her backyard, however — as manager of the Cornell Soil Health Laboratory, Kurtz is responsible for bettering soil quality for places everywhere from corn farms in the midwest U.S. to sandy deserts in Africa.

The Soil Health Team consists of “faculty, researchers, educators and technicians … working to improve the health of soils around the world,” Kurtz told The Sun in an email.

Her main role as manager of the laboratory is to oversee the analysis of thousands of soil samples that are sent in from other countries around the world, who pay a cost to reveal the secrets of their soil.

While soil health may seem as boring as dirt to the uninitiated, members of the team investigate its crucial importance in human survival.

“It is incredibly satisfying to work on research that is so essential to our global community,” Kurtz said. She noted that 95 percent of the world’s food “comes from soil,” necessitating the management of the world’s soils to “ensure global food security.”

The 20-person team consists of professors and researchers in collaboration with other institutions, reaching out to audiences ranging from farmers to non-profit organizations to students. Their work typically involves not only testing the health of soils around the world, but also investigating the biological and physical aspects of soil function by analyzing samples of soil, according to Kurtz.

The Soil Health Laboratory has expanded in recent years. Other laboratories have followed the model of the Cornell Soil Health Laboratory to analyze their own soil health in countries such as India, Bulgaria, Canada, South Africa, Australia and Ukraine, according to Prof. Harold van Es, soil and crop sciences, a member of the of the Cornell Soil Health Team..

Currently, the Soil Health Laboratory is working with the Soil Health Institute to sample and map soil health across the United States, Mexico and Canada, according to Kurtz.

“Over the past decade, a national — and even global — movement has emerged around the topic of soil health. This has re-focused the attention on soil as a critical resource for life on earth,” said van Es. “We were among the first to advance these ideas and create awareness.”

In addition to the Soil Health Institute, the team has worked with other universities, corporations and currently even the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“Everyone has always been very enthusiastic about the mission and given 110% to the program,” van Es said. With this dedication and enthusiasm, the attention directed towards soil health has grown, especially in the past decade.

“When I started working with soil health almost 8 years ago there was very little attention being paid to the subject,” Kurtz said. “Now articles about soil health can be found in The New York Times, Forbes magazine, the Guardian and beyond.”