Soil–A Precious Resource Under Threat

For October 16, 2019                Please share with your friends & neighbors.

Hi WN@TL Fans,

Earth is a blue watery planet, mostly, but the earthen part of Earth is largely covered in a thin skin of soil.   So vital is the soil to our connection to our planet that in some contexts the word “earth” means “soil.”

When it comes to prairie soils, loess is more, as Mr. Tieken would say in the Ag Shop at Dixon High School.  He might also say, “Soil is alive.”  For among the physical particles of sand, silt and clay lives an astonishing range of living things: bacteria and fronteria, fungi and protists, insects and reptiles, voles and moles. Oh, and plants. The loam is their home upon the land. 

As I mentioned last week, when the Morrill land-grant universities were getting going back in the 1860’s, there were at least two leading schools of thought about wealth from the land.

One school was extractive:  how to find and mine valuable ores.  

The other school was regenerative:  how to cultivate the land to grow food, feed, and fiber. This approach led Andrew Draper, president of the University of Illinois from 1894 to 1904, to make a prescient assertion:  “The wealth of Illinois is in her soil and her strength lies in its intelligent development.”

Wind and water help make soil, but they can also carry it away. What’s erosive to soils is corrosive to agriculture and to our capacity to grow food upon the land.  

Developing intelligent ways to keep our soils here at home is a rising challenge for Wisconsin and the world, and it’s the topic this week (October 16) as Jo Handelsman, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, speaks on “Soil: A Precious Resource Under Threat.”

As she writes:

Soil erosion remains a largely unrecognized crisis, and yet the loss of this precious resource threatens to cause mass starvation in a few decades. Throughout history, agricultural practices such as plowing have destroyed the architecture of soil, making it more vulnerable to erosion. Many civilizations have collapsed because their soil eroded, leaving people with no way to grow crops. Today we see the same trend in the United States and around the world.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that, on average, soil erodes at a rate of almost five tons per acre per year from U.S. cropland. With soil being generated at less than one-tenth of this rate, the loss is simply unsustainable. Global warming accelerates the crisis, as more frequent severe rainstorms drive soil from the land and induce its release of carbon in the form of powerful greenhouse gases. It’s a vicious cycle, but there is a way out.

“To halt this crisis, consumers need to partner with farmers to make it feasible for them to adopt sustainable practices, such as no-till planting and intercropping. We need a consortium of farmers, scientists, food retailers, and consumer activists to agree upon criteria for certifying farms as “soil safe” and a mechanism to accomplish certification and food labeling. The U.S. has achieved similarly ambitious endeavors before — recycling and fair trade coffee movements — and the soil crisis is worthy of that same attention. The stakes are too high to ignore our nation’s soil.”

About the Speaker

Dr. Jo Handelsman is the Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Vilas Research Professor, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor. She previously served as a science advisor to President Barack Obama as the Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) where she served for three years until January 2017, and was on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Yale University before that

She received her Ph.D. at UW-Madison in Molecular Biology and has since authored over 200 scientific research publications, 30 editorials, and 29 essays. She has authored numerous articles about classroom methods and mentoring and she is co-author of six books about teaching, including Entering Mentoring and Scientific Teaching. 

She is responsible for groundbreaking studies in microbial communication and work in the field of metagenomics. She is also widely recognized for her contributions to science education and diversity in science. Notably, she received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring from President Obama in 2011, and in 2012, Nature named her one of “ten people who mattered this year” for her research on gender bias in science.


Next week (October 23Jason Peters of Pharmaceutical Sciences will tailor a talk for us on his research using Crispr as a kind of broken scissors to explore how antibiotics tick, and ways to exploit those insights to better manage disease-causing microbes.

He described his motivating concern in a recent interview:  “During my postdoctoral work, I began to appreciate the gravity of upcoming antibiotic resistance crisis—we will soon be out of weapons to fight resistant bacterial pathogens. My current efforts are focused on identifying new weaknesses in these pathogens that can be exploited by drugs developed by my colleagues in the School of Pharmacy.”


Of Note:  Tomorrow (Oct 16) at 5:30 you have a special opportunity to chat with researchers involved in the “Science to Script” initiative to connect scientists with writers for the screen & stage.  The flyer is attached below.  At least three of the six researchers have shared their work at WN@TL, so you’ll be seeing some familiar as well as new faces 

Please be sure to RSVP at

Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.

Thanks again!

Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Division of Extension