Dr. Weixi Shu has leveraged innovative technologies and practices to develop a fast, reliable, and economical technique to measure a wide range of soil properties from Atlantic Canada, Ontario, and Quebec.
Dr. Shu, the McCain Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Sustainable Agriculture on Dal's Agricultural Campus in Truro, works as part of the Innovative Waste Management research program to help tackle major challenges to food security and soil health.
The research program, led by Dr. Gordon Price, works on a multitude of research projects developing new practices for environmental management seeking to better understand impacts of these practices in Atlantic Canada and beyond.
Soil is a key storage locker for carbon on our planet,” explains Dr. Price, a professor of engineering on the Truro Campus. “Soil has a large capacity to store and cycle carbon in an efficient and effective way, as long as it is managed properly.”
Dr. Shu, who joined the team in 2012 to pursue his MSc in Agriculture, has since completed his PhD under the continued supervision of Dr. Price and is now a recipient of a prestigious McCain’s Postdoctoral Fellowship.
“The objectives of the research will be twofold, first to build a library of soils and mid-infrared range (MIR) spectra, across agricultural systems from Atlantic Canada and then to develop predictive models for soil properties to assess the quality and residence times of different soil health parameters across different land use management procedures in Atlantic Canada,” explains Dr. Shu.
Predicting soil health
Maintaining healthy soils is crucial for agriculture to be sustainable and productive. When soil health is degraded because of intensive farming practices, pollution, and other factors, it can lead to reduced crop productivity, increased use of fertilizers and pesticides, and higher production costs. Poor soil health can also cause environmental problems such as soil erosion, soil compaction, and water pollution, which can harm local biodiversity and human health.
Dr. Shu, along with his supervisor Dr. Price and other faculty members from the Centre for Sustainable Soil Management are working with MIR (mid-infrared) spectroscopy. This technique allows information about soils to be quickly acquired and then interpreted to predict a wide range of soil properties, including soil carbon, texture, pH, organic matter, contaminants, peat chemistry, organic matter fractions, and cation exchange capacity.
“The anticipated outcomes of this project are to provide a suite of spatial decision support tools that identify opportunities for enhanced soil organic carbon sequestration at the regional- and national- scale, and to advance our understanding of how soil management affects soil organic carbon fractions under different conventional and regenerative agricultural management systems. If the approach proves robust, it will be a critical advance in support of provincial and industry initiatives closely tracking soil organic carbon and soil health,” furthers Dr. Shu.
Once the MIR spectral library is established, Dr. Shu, Dr. Price, and their colleagues will work to create models that will predict soil quality and the lifecycle of soil organic carbon in soils across Atlantic Canada.
Understanding the residence times of soil organic compounds is important for managing soil health, fertility, and environmental quality. By determining how long a compound will persist in the soil, researchers, like Dr. Shu, can develop soil management practices that promote sustainable agricultural production and minimize negative impacts on the environment. Dr. Shu is working to help Atlantic Canadian farmers better assess land use management to increase crop production.
This research is part of a larger global initiative through the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Global Soil Partnership program and is part of a growing Canadian initiative to build a national soil digital database spearheaded by Drs. Price, Lynch, Burton, and Heung at Dalhousie University and Drs. Adam Gillespie and Asim Biswas at the University of Guelph.
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