Steven Shafer, Soil Scientist Interview

Steven Shafer is Chief Scientific Officer at the Soil Health Institute, which aims “to be to soil what NASA is to space.” He spent 33 years at the USDA Agricultural Research Service before coming to the institute.

Shafer studies the “phytobiome”—the environment that plants inhabit along with their surrounding organisms—and how it influences soil health. Shafer thinks that studying the phytobiome can help solve a potential food crisis: Currently, the world’s population of 7 billion people are fed by arable land that comprises 10 percent of Earth’s land mass. By 2050, it is estimated there will be 9.7 billion people, but crop yields are peaking. To counter this problem, Shafer says scientists should consider the numerous factors that affect crop yields, such as insects, microbes, weeds, weather, and nutrients. Scientists typically look at one interaction at a time. But examining these factors more holistically, Shafer says, might help farmers predict which crops do better under certain conditions, enhancing their performance and yields.

SciCom’s Anna Katrina Hunter sat down with Shafer in February at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Austin, Texas.

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