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Researchers see remarkable potential of clean process to eliminate crop-devouring pest: 'It is relatively easy'

"The soil will function well biologically and relatively quickly."

"The soil will function well biologically and relatively quickly."

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A process known as "soil steaming" could make soil management easier, ensuring that our crops are protected against worrisome pests without harmful chemicals

As detailed on Phys.org, researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO) tested this method firsthand under "controlled conditions" before observing the commercially available technology by SoilSteam International in action. 

They found that extremely hot steam reliably killed the yellow potato cyst nematode, a worm-like organism that can live in soil for up to 30 years, directly leading to crop losses, significant pest control expenses, and reduced soil quality, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As suggested by the nematode's name, potatoes are one of the primary crops it attacks, though tomatoes are a target as well. 

There are thousands of types of nematodes, and certain species are beneficial. However, warming global temperatures have caused some of the creatures to invade new areas, leading to new challenges for the agricultural industry.

"Our winters are becoming milder. As a result, 'tropical' root-knot nematodes are moving further north. Whereas they used to be found only in North Africa and southern Europe, in recent years they have also been observed in central France and halfway across the Balkans," researcher Hans Helder explained in a statement for the Netherlands' Wageningen University & Research.

"In addition, climate change is affecting soil temperatures. At temperatures of 28 degrees or higher [around 82 degrees Fahrenheit], some important resistance genes of crops no longer work. This line of defense that protects plants against parasites is thereby lost," Helder added

At NIBIO, researchers were able to neutralize the yellow nematode at 70 degrees Celsius [158 degrees Fahrenheit], causing them to speculate that the white nematode — another troublesome species — could be dealt with by steaming the soil at slightly higher temperatures, as noted on Phys.org. 

The SoilSaver, manufactured by SoilSteam, is a mobile machine meant for use at construction sites, landfills, and other areas that may be importing invasive pests or plants like Japanese knotweed.  

While the SoilSaver itself is not meant to save infected fields, as NIBIO researcher Marit Skuterud Vennatrø pointed out to Phys.org, the experiment suggested that steaming soil could be a promising agricultural solution with further development.

An important factor to consider is that high heat could kill unintended organisms. However, fields that are infected with white nematodes have to be quarantined for 40 years under current regulations, according to Skuterud Vennatrø, so refreshing the soil could be a better option. 

"It is relatively easy to revive the soil with the addition of other soil or compost. Thus, the soil will function well biologically and relatively quickly," NIBIO researcher Erik Joner told Phys.org. "SoilSaver does not kill present soil life and is thus a sustainable process. Soil steaming has no chemically obvious effects other than a certain release of nutrients bound in soil organisms."

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