As the climate crisis intensifies, flooding can have a devastating impact on the microscopic world that supports our agriculture. This has far-reaching consequences for the food security. Scientists must identify ways to prevent soil degradation caused by floods.
URBANA, ILLINOIS – The intensity and frequency with which flooding occurs has increased around the globe. Over the past few months, flooding of unprecedented proportions has devastated New Jersey, New York, Libya and Greece. Thousands have died and infrastructure, farmland and livestock were severely damaged. In turn, this puts pressure on the agriculture sector, leading to food insecurity.
Floods can cause damage to soil that is less visible but still important. Floods may harm the biology of soils as well as larger organisms such as beneficial microorganisms. These include insect larvae and other soil-dwelling creatures like nematodes and springtails. They also perform important functions, for example, breaking down residues from crops, recycling nutrients and stimulating plant growth. This symbiotic system has extensive implications on crop production.
Researchers from the University of Illinois and my own lab have found that flooding can lead to severe crop loss, due in part to reduced growth of plants and farmland.
Research has shown that, despite being limited to date, flooding can have a negative impact on soil function and the soil microbiome. In one experiment, using spring wheat, it was found that flooding reduced the number of beneficial microbes while increasing those harmful to plants. One experiment revealed that extreme weather events decreased soil fungus and microbial content.
The microbes that survive the receding water will have a completely different environment. Depending on conditions, the bacteria can either bounce back or slowly die. A healthy soil microbiome is essential for the recycling of nutrients and the strength of plants. Without it, invaders such as pathogens and insects can attack.
It is not only bad for the plants but also for us. We depend on healthy soils to produce crops with high nutritional values. The importance of soil health in determining food nutrient content has been highlighted by research on various farming techniques. It follows that more research is needed to understand the impacts of floods on food-related crops, such as research into how flooding affects soil quality and health.
Researchers must also identify interventions which, after a flood can support the health of plants, help restore soil fertility and aid in the recovery of larger organisms as well as soil-dwelling bacteria. One mitigation strategy that has been suggested is to apply nitrogen fertilizer right after a flood. This could help revive waterlogged plants.
It may be longer for soil-dwelling organisms to heal than plants that are actively growing. The time it takes to restore these organisms can range from one year up to several years depending on a number of factors. These include the severity and duration of the floods, as well as the condition and health the soil had before the extreme conditions. Cover crops are one of the best ways to help restore these organisms.
These research activities should be complemented by modeling studies that could determine the location of future floods and their duration. Some environmental conditions are yet to be developed, and it is impossible to test them all. It is therefore crucial to use flood modeling as a tool for testing hypotheses, analysing various scenarios and especially soil quality, microbe communities and plant health.
The data from modeling and research should be shared widely with government agencies and humanitarian organizations. So, civil society leaders and policymakers can develop strategies to combat flood-induced soil degrading.
Around the globe, countries must make the connection between soil health, food security, and flooding. We can only create an effective preparedness plan and implement science-based interventions if we take care of the invisible microbiome that supports our agricultural system. It is important to treat our soil as if it were dirt, especially with the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather.
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