The Week in Soil

Groundswell Director and SSA SAB member John Cherry was featured in the Guardian this week speaking up for the conservation farmers fighting to restore and save our soils. “I have always been interested in soil, which in the end is the most important thing about farming,” he says. 

“Scottish farmers could do more on soil health, but let’s remember that in comparison to some other parts of the world we are starting from a pretty admirable position.” One farmer’s perspective on the sustainable management of soil for the sake of supporting the local economy and home demand without imports whilst also restoring and protecting the environment.

Soil has a story to tell us – and we are all part of it… Promoters of soil and community health for Greenpeace and other organisations outline where soil fits as a solution to climate change and a tool to build more resilient communities.

Soil pollution has emerged as one of China’s greatest environmental challenges, with nearly 1/5 of the country’s farmland exposed to contamination by pesticides, mining residues, chemical waste or heavy metals. The Agriculture Minister has urged local authorities to rapidly invest in clean-up operations as part of a bid to maximise agricultural production, following a new law which came in to effect at the beginning of this year and 5 previous years of the country’s ‘war on pollution.’

The dirt on floodwater-induced soil loss: this piece in the Conversation shines a spotlight on the damage caused by massive loss of topsoil due to this year’s record flooding in the US Midwest which impacted the land that much of the nation’s food supply relies on; with the conclusion that farmers may need to take far more active measures to manage soil health in future as extreme weather events become more common.

Professor Rattan Lal has won the 2019 Japan Prize for his work on soil health. President of the awarding Foundation stated “Dr. Lal’s work has already contributed to the prosperity of humanity.” The significance of his work for public health and ‘the betterment of the human condition’ – including climate change, food security and wellbeing – is outlined in this Forbes piece. The hope is that the prize will bring more attention to soil science and encourage others to enter the profession.

Incidentally, the recent Bill Gates blog on the significance of soil for climate change mitigation discussed in the piece above can be found here. He highlights some interesting innovations to combat agricultural emissions. ..

…whilst soil scientist Asmeret Asefaw Berhe argues for soil health and sustainable soil management as invaluable for effective carbon sequestration in a TED talk, described in more detail here.

In this month’s edition of the HAT Soil Health Podcast presenters focus on the significant current problem of soil erosion occurring around Indiana ; whilst here you can watch a Spectrum News 1 in-focus interview with a soil researcher discussing the On-Field Ohio project which works to predict fertiliser run-off from fields based on soil type, erosion and slope.

Amazonia is a megadiverse region of rainforest, but soil properties remain unknown as data is so limited. But now researchers have been having some success using knowledge of plant occurrence to piece together properties and produce a much more accurate soil map – useful for species distribution and habitat modelling, and relevant in the context of global warming.

A new study has offered novel insight in to the mechanisms driving gas releases in agricultural regions: in one of the few tests of nitrogen emissions as a function of soil moisture, researchers found soil wet spots to be a driver of agricultural nitrogen gas emissions.

The Environment Editor of Ensia considers the problem of soil salination which is occurring globally due to sea level rises, irrigation and drought, threatening crops and ecosystems, and impacting heavily on food production in coastal and delta areas of countries such as India and Vietnam.

The key to soil health is in its smell – and that smell can make us happy, according to horticultural author Julie Kilpatrick. Research has previously concluded that bacteria in soil produces serotonin, the happy hormone, when absorbed by the skin; Julie suggests that healthy soil will contain more of that bacteria and can be identified by a sweet smell pleasant to the human nose. “All you need to do is get outdoors and inhale the soil.”

A further recent study has uncovered the mystery behind the success of the seed that falls furthest from the tree: bacteria in the soil closest to the parent tree is toxic to the offspring, which thrive relatively well in soils close to other trees of their own species.

John Deere has won a Soil Management Award for a major breakthrough in soil technology which “will inspire [EU] policies for a more sustainable agriculture.”

 The gut microbiota of baboons is a result of the type of local soils they consume, according to new research which demonstrates the environment has a stronger influence over the animals’ make up than their genes. Baboons spend a vast amount of time around soil, and their diet consists of a variety of leaves, insects and roots which are typically covered in a layer of the stuff.

And finally, human composting – a means of disposing of human bodies technically known as natural organic reduction - may soon be allowed in Washington. The idea was sparked from observations of farmers’ disposal of animal bodies, and studies involving 6 bodies of people that signed up to be part of the project took place last year.