When science becomes humanitarian

CAFNR scientist applies decades of research to help Ukrainian farmers restore farmland damaged in Russian war

An Asian man with short, dark hair and glasses wears a grey sweater with 3/4 button closures inside of a building wiht large windows and a staircase behind him. He stands with his hands clasped in front of him.
Chung-Ho Lin, an alum of the University of Missouri (MU), has worked his entire career in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) in the School of Natural Resources. Lin, who is a research associate professor in forestry, is known as the problem solver Lin has made discoveries that directly impact environmental and human health in his time here at MU.

Ukraine has long been one of the world’s top producers of grains like wheat, corn and barley, and produces half of the world’s sunflower oil, but Russia’s invasion and the war following have left the country’s agriculture industry with a litany of problems to overcome to continue serving as the world’s breadbasket. Ukraine’s Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food has mapped out eight areas in need of immediate assistance, and among them is pollution of farmland throughout the country.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic and land-locked in the heartland of the US, Chung-Ho Lin, research professor at the MU Center for Agroforestry Bioremediation Program in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ School of Natural Resources, is putting more than two decades of his scientific research on bioremediation to work to combat this problem and help prevent global implications.

“I’m glad we can be useful and we can use this science to help humanity,” Lin said. “We’ve developed a lot of technology in the lab that I think we can scale up to help the people of Ukraine.”

As Russian forces have moved through Ukraine, they have left farmland riddled with contaminants such as ammunition or propellants either from military operations or in being used as a dumping ground. This means TNT and heavy metals like mercury and cadmium are now mixed into the soil. Left as they are, plants growing in that soil would take up those heavy metals and become contaminated themselves.

“Imagine if canola oil got contaminated,” Lin said, explaining the potential global impact. “Contaminates tend to end up in the lipids. They tend to be hydrophobic molecules, and they just love fat.”

Lin’s life work just happens to focus on ways to affordably and sustainably remove these kinds of contaminates from soils, and he is part of a working group at Mizzou partnering with the Ukrainian Embassy. Through this group – which was organized by MU Extension Program Director and Professor Craig Roberts and includes scientists from throughout CAFNR as well as John Brockman, professor of chemistry at the MU Research Reactor  – Lin has developed a plan to help get his science into the hands of Ukrainian farmers who need it most.

“In the reactor, we have probably one of the best tools for analysis and remediation of heavy metals,” Lin said.

This is where his plan begins. Currently scientists in Ukraine are extracting organic contaminants from Ukrainian soils and shipping them to his lab at Mizzou. This allows Mizzou researchers to identify and characterize the species of the contaminants, which will help guide what process to use in remediating them, which is the next step.

Lin has worked with the scientists and collaborators in Ukraine to develop two methods of bioremediation that could be easily incorporated into their conventional agricultural practices. He explained that different contaminants respond better to one method or another based on the chemical and physical properties. The first method involves planting cover crops such as native grasses or lentils, and the second method involves applying a layer of compost. With either method, Lin described the organic material – either the cover crop or the compost – as acting like a “biosponge” that will soak up the contaminants and stimulate the microbial degradation of the contaminants in the soils. His research shows that using these methods can reduce up to 80 percent of contaminants, such as explosives TNT and RDX in just 80 days.

The relatively short timeframe is not the only advantage of Lin’s technology. It can also be easily taught to Ukrainian agriculture producers, who can apply the methods themselves, and it is significantly more cost-effective than other remediation methods.

“Physical and chemical remediation is too expensive,” Lin said. “No one can afford it.”

In addition to teaching producers his methods, Lin’s plan also aims to help Ukraine develop tools for long-term biomonitoring, which will be important as the country’s farmers move forward.

Lin views his role in this problem-solving effort as being akin to an architect. He said he has created building blocks and is now assembling them into a scientific package to be delivered to the public for this humanitarian effort.

“This is why CAFNR is so important,” Lin said. “It fosters this environment where we can work together – biochemistry and plant scientists – and have a global impact even though we are geographically in a college town in the center of the country. This impact has no boundary.”