Soil Science – crossing boundaries

Panel discussion at the WCSS, 2022

From 1st-4th August the World Congress of Soil Science 2022 was hosted at the SECC in Glasgow. The World Congress of Soil Science is a big deal. It’s held every 4 years at different venues around the world. Hundreds of national and international soil scientists come together to present their research in lectures, presentations, and posters. (A science poster is a specific method of conveying research: images, text, and graphs summarize the research and findings.) This year’s Congress theme was: ‘Soil Science – crossing boundaries, changing society’ and it ‘focussed on the link between soil and society, with sessions covering soil systems, soil processes, soil management and how we interact with and use soils around the world’.

At a time of global concern for our planet and its growing population, managing our soils sustainably has never been as important. 90% of our food comes from soil, as does all of our timber and other fibre. Soil, and the ecosystems it supports, have a huge role in mitigating against climate change, is a vast reservoir of biodiversity, plays a significant role in flood management and contains key evidence of past civilisations. https:/()

Accordingly, social scientists presented within the scientific programme. There was also an policy programme, and an associated arts programme, which happened outside of the SECC.

Anna (from Team Peat) and I attended. Anna trained as a soil scientist. With an understanding of, and background in, soil science, Anna entered a familiar world. I, on the other hand, entered a congress of soil science as a generalist.

As part of Peatland Connections, a micro commission was offered to artist Kate Foster to join me and Anna at the Congress to creatively re-tell our collective learning experience. With an interdisciplinary, reflective, and conversational approach, this micro-commission aims to creatively document our collective congress reflections through text, drawings, and diagrams that will be compiled, by Kate, into a digestible, on-line zine: Re-telling the Congress.

During the congress, Kate and I began to publicly lay out our reflections, capturing our learning and our conversations.

Kerry and Kate in the exhibition hall, scribing their reflection and talking to delegates

Kate has long focused on peat and peat cultures within her art practice. Prior to the Peatland Connections project, Kate worked alongside and with the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership and the Crichton Carbon Centre to learn about and celebrate, through the lens of an artist, the role of peatlands within Galloway’s landscapes. In many ways, this was a pilot project that helped to inform the scope and role of the Peatland Connections Project.

In the run-up to Kate’s zine publication, I thought I’d scribe a few of my own reflections on the Congress. As a generalist, it’s a bit overwhelming reading through the programme of presentations. Which presentations should I go to? And, will I be able to understand what they are talking about?

I kicked off by attending the second Key Note presentation on the morning of the 1st Aug: Are plant roots only ‘in’ soil or are they ‘of’ it? Roots, soil formation and function; a presentation by Professor Peter Gregory, School of Agriculture, Policy & Development, University of Reading. Prof. Gregory’s presentation covered some very easy to grasp provocations, including: What is soil? (a great place to begin for the non-expert); Where does the soil begin – when do leaves stop being leaf litter and become soil? What function do roots of trees and other plants play in healthy soil formation? This lecture took us down into the earth through roots of plants and mapped out how necessary roots are in taking both water and CO2 down into the earth.

Slide form Professor Peter Gregory's Key note lecture

Soil, that mucky brown stuff that’s beneath our feet, is fascinating. Prof. Gregory went on to talk about the array of services and goods that soil provides: services which directly benefit us (humans). These services are often referred to as Ecosystem Services. The most obvious service soil provides is supporting life, including human life. Soil is crucial for the provision of food, timber, cotton, etc. 90% of our food is dependent on soil. Without soil, survival would be challenging in the extreme. Soil, as Crichton Carbon Centre’s team knows only too well (peat is a soil), is a carbon sink, it sequestrates (sucks up) CO2 and locks in carbon. All soils hold carbon; this is welcome news in times of Climate Crisis. Peatlands alone remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than all the forests in the world, yet peatland only covers 3% of the earth’s land. Staggering.

In his lecture, Prof. Gregory pointed out that living roots and root systems play a really important role in getting carbon into the ground. He proposed that we turn things upside down and think about soil from the bottom up, and not just about the plant life at the top that soil supports. Turning peat upside-down and looking at peat from the bottom-up takes us back in time tens of thousands of years revealing past natural and cultural histories, for example, the Torrs Pony Cap, discovered enshrined in peat in Castle Douglas.

Soil holds our past, supports our present, and will determine our future.

The keynote lectures I attended presented broad overviews of soil, for example: the Ecosystem Services that are crucial for the survival of both humans and non-humans; soils deterioration as a result of human intervention and exploitation; and endeavours to change behaviours, practices, and attitudes towards soil, from the ground up and top down. The session lectures were more specific, focusing on researchers’ projects and presenting findings and, where applicable, gaps in knowledge.

Whatever type of soil inspires us to dig deeper into soil science or our cultural and societal connections to soil, through attending the World Congress of Soil Science 2022, there is no doubt that soil is a precious and finite matter, and that we urgently need to recognise both its value in supporting and regulating life on this earth and the precarious state of soil - globally.

In presentation after presentation, we heard that soil systems across the world are under threat. Our soils are degrading and wearing away. Scientists at the Congress brought home the urgency of the situation stating that we need to work together – now - both from the ground-up and the top-down. To this I’d like to add: and the spaces in-between. For example, Artist, Newton Harrison, in the work The Deep Wealth of this Nation, Scotland, which was presented in the Congress exhibition hall, presents a course of action that could enable part of the solution to the three crisis’ we are currently facing: climate change, biodiversity loss, and soil loss. The Deep Wealth of this Nation, Scotland, provides an ecological vision for how Scotland could become the first industrialised nation to give back more to the life web than it consumes. The vision draws out the five commons: soil, forestry, water, air and importantly the commons of mind - how we as a human population might reach agreement about principles for putting the health of ecosystems first. It offers a holistic vision and framework to draw together artists, scientists and citizens to explore the importance of soil the natural environment for mitigation and adaptation to collectively address the challenges we face.

The Deep Wealth of this Nation, Scotland. Detail.

The World Congress of Soil Science 2022 was enlightening. Academic scientists undertake fascinating research, some of which I could easily grasp, like a European perspective for new soil science skills needed for the future, which included connectivity between people and the ability to think holistically. Soil scientists presenting called again and again for social scientists to bridge the gap between the soil science and communities. One speaker pointed out: it’s people that do the stuff. Yet, we learnt that 95% of funding allocated to academic soil research goes to the natural sciences. Therefore, bridging this gap will be challenging. So too, connectivity between people and holistic thinking.

As a generalist working outside of academia it’s interesting to hear the challenges soil scientists are confronted with. They do the research. They know what’s happening to our soils around the world, and they can evidence this. They want their research to be turned into action. Yet, to achieve this, their research needs to filter to those taking action. To achieve the goals that will protect our soils here and worldwide, integrated working and research is needed.

For me, what was missing from the WCSS were the voices of those working on the ground, ankle deep in soil, like Team Peat and the landowners and managers they work with, and Propagate who work with farmers, local food producers, and communities. The voices of the people doing the stuff, integrated equally within the soil science colloquium, are integral to crossing boundaries, changing society’ focuses on the link between soil and society, … and how we interact with and use soils around the world’.

The Congress brought it home that this is a time of climate, biodiversity, and soil emergencies. Clearly, many scientists saw the vital importance of collaboration, the need to bring in different perspectives and expertise. Along with fascinating research and presentations, attending the Congress highlighted many gaps: gaps in knowledge and gaps in action. Gaps are exciting spaces as they are spaces of opportunity. This is something creative practice and action could and should help negotiate.

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