When Sean Smukler left his position at Columbia University in New York for UBC, the idea of having access to a research farm on campus was tremendously appealing: “I love this part of the world but it was the job description… I couldn’t pass it up.”
Smukler, assistant professor in Applied Biology and Soil Science in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems, teaches undergrad and graduate students and is the principal investigator for the Sustainable Agricultural Landscapes (SAL) lab.
One of Smukler’s undergrad courses, Food and Environment 1: Intro to Agroecology, conducts its lab classes each week throughout the term at the UBC Farm — rain or shine. Course ‘gear’ includes waterproof boots, jacket and pants or poncho and a waterproof notebook. Beyond understanding basic ecological principles as they apply to agroecosystems, Smukler strives to imbue his students with the scientific ethos and attitude:
“Though a small percentage will actually become scientists, I want them to have that scientific background so that whatever they’re doing, they have that critical lens, and the skills they gain are applicable to whatever direction they’re heading in.”
The experiential education the students receive in the field is critical to understanding the complex science of food production. The biodiversity of the UBC Farm offers a natural learning environment with its wetlands, hedgerows, forest, woodlots, cropland, orchard and a multitude of small mammal, insect and bird species that you wouldn’t find on most farms.
Smukler is passionate about the importance of students getting out of the classroom and into the environment they are studying and not just passively observing it from the distance: “If you’re a doctor, you don’t just talk about cutting people open and removing a heart — you do it. You practice. Science is the same way. You have to do the thing you’re talking about for it to sink in.”
Gabriel Maltais-Landry is a NSERC-funded postdoctoral fellow working with Smukler and the SAL lab on experiments related to manure management, nutrient cycling and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With the collaboration of UBC’s Biometeorology and Soil Physics Group, Maltais-Landry is seeking to determine the amount of such emissions from soil that has been amended several amendments — horse manure, chicken manure (raw or composted), municipal compost, and specialty products (e.g. blood meal).
Of the three major biologically produced greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2) methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) — nitrous oxide has, per molecule, roughly 300 times the global-warming effect of carbon dioxide and agriculture is responsible for more than half of N2O emissions in Canada. It wouldn’t be understating it to say that research in this area could have global consequences.
Maltais-Landry’s experiments have revealed that N2O emissions are much lower from soil that’s been amended with horse manure or municipal compost rather than chicken manure. He is not quick to offer any ‘silver-bullet’ global solutions at this point but sees the value of this research “not just in terms of looking at how it can be applied directly to farms but also kind of understanding more of the basic biology behind some of these processes.”
The holy grail seems to be about finding the right “dosages” of these valuable, natural bio-fertilizers needed to create a replicable system that, explains Maltais-Landry, would “have the same yields as a regular system but reduce emissions, build organic matter and maintain soil fertility.” With another year left in his study, he hopes to get closer to understanding how this might be accomplished.