Soil’s deep-rooted PR problem

December 16, 2015

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Some school lessons are more effective than others. Slip some questions on photosynthesis or the parts of a flower into a pub quiz, and plenty of people would pick up points from the things they learnt in biology class. Ask a general knowledge question about soil or the root systems of plants, by contrast, and people don’t fare so well. Beyond farmers and environmentalists, few people are concerned about what goes on beneath their boots. Unfortunately, the rapid spread of soil degradation is now a global problem and greater understanding of the issue is urgently required. So what can be done?

While the International Year of Soils has made a lot of headway raising awareness about the importance of healthy soils in food production and environmental stewardship, there is still plenty of work to be done and I’m not sure the necessary impact has been made, despite some valiant attempts at outreach.

In the last year, the Sustainable Food Trust has published some great content on the subject of soil, including Patrick Holden’s excellent blog on ‘soil as the stomach of the plant’, Sophie Laggan’s piece on rewilding soil and Lynda Brown’s profile of Elaine Ingham’s work. However, the key to moving these important conversations beyond the echo chamber of those who already care about our soils, is to create a powerful narrative that resonates with a wider public and includes them in the problem-solving process.

Facing facts

So why do soils remain sorely overlooked in the public consciousness? Part of the answer must come down to simple aesthetics: it’s much easier to appreciate the beauty of a rare flower or endangered eagle than it is to consider the health of a mysterious damp brown material that sticks to your shoes and leaves messy marks on the carpet. “Soils are out of view for much of the year, covered by grasses and foliage” says Willie Towers, a prominent soil scientist at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland. “Awareness of soil degradation is still pretty low and people generally don’t appreciate the link between soils and the food they eat.”

It’s a basic but significant PR problem in need of redress by scientists, farmers and educators, and better storytelling would go a long way to solving it.

In science circles, a common approach to reaching a broader audience includes production of posters and infographics. In the case of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), that’s exactly what they have done, and some of their resources are surprisingly good. For example, this infographic does a good job of setting out why soil is so closely linked to the food we eat and details important statistics on soil in a logical and accessible manner.

Other infographics produced by the FAO, however, are more opaque. This companion graphic on the origins of soil provides a strange jumble of facts and images. Its key messages aren’t communicated effectively and it lacks the detail and coherence necessary to bring their meanings alive.

The use and presentation of facts and statistics needs careful consideration from all environmental organisations. Take this line from the Soil Association’s website, which declares that “…in the UK alone we lose 2.2 million tonnes of valuable topsoil every year.” The statement assumes that people are aware of why this is significant. But if the Soil Association aims to reach a broader audience, this may not pass the ‘so what?’ test. Two million tonnes certainly sounds like a lot of topsoil to be losing, but if you don’t understand why topsoil is valuable, simply being told that it is valuable limits the statement’s impact. So what’s the answer?

Selling the story of soil

Soil needs to be more compelling; we need to bring it centre stage in conversations about food. Soil needs to be understood as a place where magic happens.

Is that overstating the case? Not at all. For starters, a spoonful of healthy soil can contain more living organisms than there are people on the planet. In total, these organisms contain more carbon than the atmosphere and all the world’s forests combined. Soils are fascinating microscopic worlds with many protagonists. They have the power to capture people’s imagination, especially kids.

This is a sentiment shared by Towers. Alongside his significant contribution to the Scottish soil map coverage and the Hutton Institute’s soils database, Towers is interested in the communication of soil science, and has been involved in a number of outreach initiatives, including the Dirt Doctors project, a multimedia teaching resource that ‘humanised’ the eight main soil types found in Scotland.

By translating each soil type into a cartoon character with equivalent human occupations and personalities, the team was able to convey the rich diversity of Scottish soils in a tangible and meaningful way. Within the world of the Dirt Doctors, peat becomes Pete, “a young head on old shoulders”, whose likely occupations include water supplier, whisky distiller and ornithologist. By contrast, Heather is “very old, but extremely interesting” and more likely to be a gamekeeper, forester, ecologist or farmer.

“We try to get the public to think of soils like human beings: we’re all different and all soils are different. We have strengths and weaknesses, as do soils,” Towers explains. “I’ve found real success in comparing soils to human archetypes.” The comparisons don’t need to stop with characterising soil types either, the cast could include, among others, nematodes, earthworms, ants, mycorrhizal fungi, protozoa and bacteria.

I’m not advocating a dumbing down of the science here, just a shift in focus when introducing the subject of soil science to people – start with what’s most likely to capture their attention before moving on to more complex aspects. Bringing these soil communities alive in vivid and extraordinary ways so that they are easily understood is key to securing their protection.

Sustainability in schools

So how do we make outreach on soil stick? Schools provide the biggest opportunity to create a generation who understand and appreciate the importance of healthy soils.

At present, GCSE units offer some detail on root systems and mineral uptake, but little else on their rich microbial life and the complex communities of organisms that support soil health. Wouldn’t a better approach be to capture the wonder of the whole ecosystem around the root and the rhizosphere and treat this micro-environment as a marvel in itself? Going one step further, to then link the rhizosphere and plant growth with food production would really compound the benefits of these lessons.

As Richard Dunne outlined in his recent pieces on the Harmony principles, foregrounding sustainability can be really valuable in education, not least because sustainability is so reliant on critical thinking. Sustainable solutions require people to think holistically about entire systems rather than just the surface of the problem at hand. Considering the complex chains of cause and effect that must be balanced to achieve sustainable systems requires reflective and independent thinking, and that is a prerequisite for truly effective learning.

In practice, opportunities for creativity aren’t always abundant for teachers – day-to-day, they are bound by the need to demonstrate and evidence specific learning outcomes. Towers however, doesn’t see this as a restriction. He feels the learning outcomes offer a great opportunity to promote soils: “As part of the Scottish contribution to the International Year of Soils, a group of education experts has taken the step of mapping currently available soil education resources onto the Scottish ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ learning outcomes, and our findings were surprising.”

In fact, soil-focused lessons were capable of covering almost all of the curriculum areas, including: sciences, expressive arts, social studies, technologies, mathematics, languages, health and wellbeing, religious and moral studies and learning for sustainability. At every turn, the case for foregrounding soil in education seems to grow stronger.

Ultimately, bringing about this sea change in attitudes to soil education at a national level is a major challenge, but farmers, educators and other environmentalists can all play a part. As the International Year of Soils comes to an end, now is a good time for all of us to reconsider how we talk about soils to others, exciting and engaging people in the magic taking place right beneath their feet. Appreciating the wonder and value of soils is the first step towards taking action to protect them.

Photograph: Winniepix

Tags: soil health, soil science, systems thinking