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Dishing the dirt on the state of SOIL: Will 2022 see us start to talk?

Did you know just a handful of soil contains more organisms than people on Earth? Or that the past 150 years have seen half the world's most productive soil disappear? No? Perhaps that’s because until recently, soils have been pretty low on the agenda, let alone the issue of soil degradation. We predict this will change in 2022. It’s high time the British public got excited about soils. Watch this jaw-droppingly good 8-minute film by The Guardian’s film-maker, Josh Toussaint-Strauss, and you'll stop ignoring what’s growing beneath our feet.


Most of the processes that maintain all life on this planet exist within 6 inches of soil.”

Josh Toussaint-Strauss in Guardian film 'How soil offers hope for the climate crisis'.


Soil is one of nature’s most rich and complicated ecosystems, home to billions of living organisms that contribute to the global cycles of nature that make life on earth possible. Yet, unless you’re a farmer, you probably haven’t given it much thought. Which is embarrassing, because soil crops up in almost all areas of our lives. The cotton in your jeans, the wool in your jumper, the wooden desk you're sitting at, the antibiotics in your creams - all or many started life in soil - not to mention 95% of all food that is produced. Yet, dig a bit, and it starts to get darker. In 2014, a headline in an important US publication pointed to a ticking time-bomb. It read:

“Only 60 Years of Farming Left - If Soil Degradation Continues - Scientific American, 2014.

This story went global. But not global enough. The world is losing around 30 football pitches of soil every minute, and generating just 3cm of topsoil takes 1,000 years according to the United Nations. Once our healthy soils are gone, it’ll be difficult to get them back. The intensive farming methods widespread in the UK and much of the world tend to strip soils of some or more of these elements over time, leaving soil without a healthy physical and chemical structure.

For a cautionary example of what happens if 'stripping' gets out of control, read John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath - the saga of a sharecropping family trying to survive the devastating effects of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl – a man-made ecological disaster we must remember, and learn from.

The science is still emerging about the best way to manage our land and its complex interplay of soil health, carbon sequestration, livestock disturbance, insect life and birdlife. In a future blog, we'll go into more detail, including how important soil is to lock CO2 away, preventing it from reaching the atmosphere to worsen the climate crisis.


NO TIME TO BURY OUR HEAD IN THE SAND

Meanwhile, as the Covid-19 pandemic showed, we cannot ‘wait for all the answers’ before acting. So even if the science behind the '60 harvests left' headline was somewhat muddy (which, naturally, irritates the scientists no-end), people are realising that with soils at risk, so is our entire way of life. Soil health is going to keep deteriorating, and it's about time we talked about it! Or else future generations will view us like Nero - fiddling whilst Rome burns.


THE LADYBIRD GUIDE TO SOIL

But first off, what exactly is soil? To most of us, soil is clear as mud, unless you're an expert like the late Basil Brown - self-taught amateur archaeologist who discovered the priceless Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon treasures in 1939 (the same year Steinbeck's book was published). Brown did so by cutting a trench across three mounds, and looking for differences in soil colour to indicate the presence of an infilled chamber. Our team was struck by a scene in recent film, The Dig, where Brown’s character (brilliantly portrayed by Ralph Fiennes) highlights the intimate relationship between people and soils, which we seem to lose with each generation: “Show me a handful of soil from anywhere in Suffolk, and I can pretty much tell you whose land it’s from.”

For we amateurs, it helps to know that soil is made up of a 5 things:

  1. Rocks & minerals

  2. Organic matter

  3. Water

  4. Microorganisms

  5. Animals (eg worms, woodlice and tardigrades – we'll come to them... later)

Our next blog will look more closely at each element of soil, and what makes a good versus a poor quality soil. Suffice to say in this introduction: we need radical changes in farming practices to meet the needs of future generations, and halt the widespread degradation of soils in the UK and around the world.


CAN FARMING MAKE WAY FOR SOIL HEALTH?

Enlightened farmers, land managers and conservationists are not only aware of this, they are helping spread the word that we can't treat soil like dirt: it is gold dust. One such person (and another member of the Fiennes clan) is Jake Fiennes, Conservation Head at Holkham - 25,000 acres of stunning Norfolk land. In Jake's 2020 interview for The New Yorker, he describes the multitude of issues at play - all complex and interlinked, demonstrating by digging a spade into different areas of land to demonstrate a poor soil versus a good one.

Fiennes describes his approach as “multifunctional” or “environmental farming.”

He believes today's farmers must cultivate as much as they can on their land - fungi for soil, grasses for pollinators, weeds for insects, insects for birds, pasture for livestock - for the long-term goals of carbon capture and food production. These are not new concepts, but in the race for efficiency, they seem to have been forgotten, and increasingly, intensification is failing to feed us. “How do we feed the 9 billion?” he asks, “Through functioning ecosystems.”


TILLAGE TIME: VOTE WITH YOUR FEET WHEN YOU BUY

But it's not just down to those who manage land to push for better soil health. It's also down to consumers to support sustainable farming practices - and industries that commission sustainably-generated products (be they food, fashion, furniture or others). However, right now, there is a hypermarket-sized knowledge gap about how our produce is made, and a lot of confusion about what is meant by terms such as organic farming vs. regenerative farming? Without education and awareness building, and possibly some smarter product labelling, we cannot expect consumers or businesses to change their buying habits, and thus initiate positive change?

"Your food choices shape the future of the planet.”

Groove Armada's, Andy Cato, BBC Radio 6 Music

Fortunately, 2022 sees soil move up the agenda, largely because of the biggest shake-up agriculture policy shakeup in a generation. New sustainable farming initiatives will be incentivised by UK Government, and there are encouraging noises at this early stage of these movements.


CREATING CULTURAL AWARENESS

Here at Curious PR we also predict that soils will creep further into the cultural sphere, as with issues such as fast fashion, over-fishing and plastic bottles. This will come via TV, film and music. Films such as Woody Harrelson's Kiss The Ground and The Great Green Wall are good examples. We also predict more creatives and celebrities will help raise this subject off the ground as we realise that sustainable futures depend on sustainable soil management. Our next blog will look at some encouraging examples.


BREAKING THE SILOS OF KNOWLEDGE

Moving soils up the agenda will be crucial in engaging the public and decision makers, to protect and restore British soils. And as with any complex, multi-factorial issue, a lot will boil down to communication… Last year, our MD, Hannah Kapff, sat on a virtual panel with Josh Toussaint-Strauss and Louisa Zane (COO of sustainable brand, Toast Ale) for a lively talk organised by uksoils, the community hub for all things 'soil', which facilitates collaboration between experts, soil scientists and organisations determined to see soils move up the agenda of people making crucial decisions on how we grow food, feed our expanding population, and maintain a diverse and healthy ecosystem. The subject of the talk was how to convey complex soil science in engaging ways.

“It was a privilege to help talk about how to make soils 'sexy' and generate the headlines it deserves.

- Hannah Kapff, Founder & MD, Curious PR

Without milking the puns too badly, we believe passionately in breaking silos of knowledge. This is the only way enormous problems can be solved: exchanging knowledge and insights, collaborating, and initiating holistic change. We're excited about the 'soil conversation' in 2022. Who knows, perhaps Disney Pixar will move from Finding Nemo to Finding Nemotode and bring sympathetic soil 'critters' closer to hearts and minds. After all, we could all do with an antidote to the frighteningly prophetic WALL-E, released back in 2006: a cautionary tale of what will happen (and is!) if we treat planet Earth like dirt! Gardens are not made by sitting in the shade... Let’s seize the momentum and start dishing the dirt on soil health, and how to tackle it. We may have more than 60 harvests left, but we're going to have to dig deep to solve this existential problem! Look out for our next blog on the subject...

CURIOUS FACTS + DIGABLE PLANETS

Tardigrades (also known as moss piglets or water bears) are 1 millimetre long and can live almost anywhere on earth, including in soil and on our bodies. They look rather ‘sci-fi’, indeed, they were the first animal known to survive direct exposure to outer space: in 2007, these hardy creatures were sent into orbit, exposed to space vacuum and radiation. Yet, incredibly, two thirds of them survived their return to Earth! We think that earns them a play of the hit hip-hop single by Digable Planets - Rebirth Of Cool (Cool Like Dat) via on our soils-inspired 'Earthsong' Spotify playlist.

THE ULTIMATE IN HARDY: TARDIWEAR

We couldn't help noticing how tardigrade-like our sartorial hero and fashion-upcycling-colleague, Christabel, looks here in her tardigrade coat. She even found this joke for us...


Q: What did the microbiology student get for being late to class?

A: tardigrade.


Sorry. We'll dig a bit deeper next time.