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Soils and your Thanksgiving meal

Soils and your Thanksgiving meal

Did you know soil scientists are making your Thanksgiving dinner more sustainable? The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) November 15 Soils Matter blog explains research to make cranberries, poultry litter, and sweet potatoes better for the environment.

As you sit around your Thanksgiving table this year, we thought we’d give you some ideas about current research topics that help bring you your dinner. In addition to the growers who tended your food, perhaps you’ll also be thankful for the research scientists working behind the scenes to help us have a sustainable food supply for a growing world.

Cranberry sauce

berries of cranberries

Cranberries are a common companion to Thanksgiving meals. Research is helping you have your cranberries, and the environment be safe, too. Credit: Morguefile

Who doesn’t love a good cranberry sauce? Whether yours comes out of a can, or you tenderly cooked it on your stovetop, cranberries are one of the most popular additions to a Thanksgiving table. You most likely know that they are grown in bogs. And your cranberries have a 50% chance of coming from Wisconsin!

Massachusetts produces 25% of the US cranberry crop. Here, research teams are testing methods to reduce the amount of phosphorus that leaks from the bogs. For the most effective harvest, growers flood their fields to collect the cranberries. Unfortunately, some of the phosphorus fertilizers from the flooded fields can get into neighboring water bodies. The team at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is using phosphorus-absorbing salts just before harvest. By adding the salts to the water, they capture the phosphorus, making it inert to the environment. The scientists had great success in their small-scale experiments, and will now study how this process works in larger fields. They are making sure you can have your cranberries, and the environment can be safe, too!


Thinking of poultry litter during your Thanksgiving dinner might not be appetizing, but hopefully this topic might provide some dinner table conversation fodder. This natural waste product is chock-full of nutrients that can help grow crops. Researchers in southern states have found that applying poultry litter to cotton, for example, is an effective practice for good yields. However, one of the biggest challenges of applying poultry litter to fertilize crops is that the nutrients can easily leach out of the litter and pollute waterways.

Yams and Sweet Potatoes

Yam with orange

The orange color of yams is made by beta-carotene, an important nutrient provided by the 5th most important crop in developing countries. Credit: Morguefile

These nutritional powerhouses are mostly grown in Africa and South America. Both crops are high in Vitamin A – important for eye health – and are hardy growers. That’s why sweet potato is valued as the 5th most important crop in developing countries. While you might not normally think of the Caribbean during Thanksgiving, Jamaican researchers are investigating how to better predict sweet potato yields. This research will help this region achieve food and nutrition security. Other scientists are closely studying the genetics of yams. The goal is to improve the genetic diversity of and breeding efforts for this important starchy tuber.

This Thanksgiving is a good time to be thankful for all these scientists who are changing the world. Their research – and its application – ensures that we can continue to feed the global population with nutritious crops. All this while looking out for our environment, too!

Answered by Laura Christianson, University of Illinois-Urbana

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