The Week in Soil

For those that need a quick reminder: this article outlines the myriad benefits of healthy soils, alongside active work in Scotland to promote soil-improving land management practices including new monitoring tools developed by the James Hutton Institute that integrate soil biology, physics and chemistry for the first time.

And a further refresher in to the benefits and methods behind soil health comes from this simple piece and instructive video from Gabe Brown, a high profile proponent of regenerative agriculture.

Apparently ‘the public and private sectors are picking up efforts to ramp up carbon farming.’ This piece elaborates on one couple’s efforts to help farmers, chefs and ‘eaters’ understand the value of healthy soil. In their Perennial Farming Initiative and Restore California Program, participating restaurants add a ‘1% for healthy soil surcharge’ to customer’s bills, with potential to generate $10m/year funding to complement the State’s Healthy Soils Program.

Scientists have discovered that a soil microbe commonly found in New Jersey wetlands can break down one of the toughest class of pollutants, known as ‘forever chemicals’ and commonly found in many household products – as well as US waterways, soil and the food chain.

Whilst the BBC reports on soil bacteria found in the world’s driest desert, the Atacama in Chile, has so far been found to contain 46 new molecules showing antibiotic, antiviral or anticancer properties. The piece also describes medicines discovered in soil in other ‘extremobiospheres’ – areas of the world so inhospitable they have pushed life there to the limit.

A study has found that worms fail to thrive in soil containing microplastics. Whilst it is not yet known how widespread the problem of plastics in soil is, the finding could have implications for farming given the little research so far has demonstrated significant volumes of plastic in agricultural land across Europe.

Tundra soils are freezing later each year as global temperatures rise, resulting in higher levels of methane release from the regions which are production hotspots for the potent greenhouse gas.

New research has revealed further the intelligence of plant interactions, this time in the behaviour of sunflowers which have been found to send fewer roots to nutrient-rich patches of soil when they detect a neighbouring sunflower attempting to access the same patch. It seems the plants are willing to actively work together to allow both to gain greatest benefit.

A custom laser system, known as laser ablation tomography, allows researchers to visualise the anatomy of crop roots and how soil organisms such as fungi, herbivorous nematodes and insects interact with these roots, in 3 dimensions.

Scientists are also working on changing soil at a molecular level so it can withstand earthquakes: reengineering the molecular structure of soils to prevent the possibility of liquefaction – a phenomenon that occurs when the soil loses structural integrity due to a sudden shock like an earthquake, as happened in Indonesia last year.

A soil scientist is joint-winner of the German Environment Prize, alongside a sustainable cleaning products entrepreneur. The awarding body stressed ‘We need fundamental economic, political and technological change processes at all levels in order to find truly sustainable development.’

Finally, to soil in culture: a giant birdhouse suspended above Lausanne in Switzerland doubles as an artificial tree and aims to address the issue of soil scarcity in cities. DesignBoom has more on the concept behind the giant 3-legged monument which supports an oversized mistletoe ball that also serves as a nesting box for birds.