Now that the International Year of Soils (IYOS) has passed, it is a good opportunity to take stock on the state of soil awareness. The IYOS channeled a great deal of energy into awareness-raising about the fundamental importance of soil for the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. This message was transmitted through many many events, publications, videos, articles, exhibitions (much more than I can communicate here) all over the globe, engaging the efforts of people from diverse walks of life and professions actively working for soil protection and land rights. In 2015, soils were brought to the political agenda. The message that soil and land are crucial for the implementation of the 2030 development agenda, to achieve the ambitious global goal of eradicating hunger, and for climate protection has indeed reached many.
Yet, the achievement of a truly effective and sustainable protection of soil will require nothing less than an overhaul of our global society and its systems. The industrialized production and distribution systems currently used for food and consumer goods are simply neither sustainable nor equitable. We can no longer afford to squander our most precious soil resources, yet this continues unabated. Land degradation and demographic trends in global hot spots have set the stage for an explosive future. Awareness on the need for the sustainable management of soils and the responsible governance of land is as important as ever.
The Green Week – a reality check
But, the reality is that most people did not pay attention to the UN initiated soil year, and are not particularly interested in soil awareness campaigns in general. A point in case is the world’s largest agricultural trade fair, the International Green Week , which just drew to a close in Berlin, Germany. One would think that soil ought to play an important role at an event showcasing the delicious and amazing bounties of the earth. Wrong. The throngs wandering through endless crowded halls of the trade fair (which, viewed from a car on the freeway strangely resembles the Death Star) encountered an idealized and at times highly commercialized presentation of food in connection with Heimat and cultural identity. An indoor Oktoberfest of sorts with a corresponding entertainment programme. I have never before seen so many traditional Bavarian costumes, lederhosen, and umpah bands in one place, although I have lived in Germany for almost 20 years. Modern agriculture was wonderfully presented, but without the disagreeableness of a real farm, or real problems on the ground. Farm animals could be viewed chewing their cud on fresh straw. The wonder of industrial milk production was demonstrated with shiny machinery and cow mannequins. I did not see much promoting of soil health, save for the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in their focus on how to end hunger in the world. Albeit, I was too weary to make my way to the organic food hall, which was at the very far corner end of the huge building. The group promoting gardening projects for kids did not even include soil in their programme. So there is still much to do.
Land Ho! Test your knowledge
Thus, the Green Week could not be a more difficult venue to pitch the need for soil. Yet in fact, this was my mission, at the hall sponsored by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, who were promoting the message: “A world without hunger is possible.” At least it can be possible when everyone has access to healthy soils.
Together with a well-known television personality on the German kids channel KIKA, Felix Seibert-Daiker, I had the pleasure to interact with school classes from 5-10th grade through a quiz gameshow format. Despite the turmoil, they were attentive and on task. Working in groups, they were able to choose from silly categories, such as pizza, roommate and virtual reality, which corresponded to questions about topics relating to soil, virtual land take, and food security.
Crafting clear messages
“No soil, no food” is a simple and universal message which everyone can understand, relevant for kids as well as adults. The quiz show did not use very many images of soil, nor did it try to make soil sexy. Food and animals work well in this regard, as our minds are very creative. Show a picture of a delicious pizza. Ask: what are the ingredients, and where do they come from? Over 90% of our food comes from soil. No soil. No food.
Another suggestion for soil awareness for youth (and others too): speak about soil as a living organism or system rather than referring to terms with a scientific or technical touch, such as humus. Use incredible facts, such as that there are more living things in a teaspoon of fertile soil than people on the planet. I still find this truly amazing every time I think about it. Soil fertility depends on the life in the soil This point is intuitively understandable, even without going into the complexities of nutrient cycling or more detailed soil science. Make it clear that soil protection is about the physical protection of the planet’s thin living skin. It does help to draw attention to the incredible pace of erosion happening worldwide (amounting to the weight of 50 African elephants each second), and land take through urbanization. But soil protection also means nurturing the life in the soil. One must, of course, take care when boiling down the complex soil science, so that the simple message left over remains correct and that follow-up questions can be answered compactly explaining some of these scientific ideas. Telling the whole story of soil in the complexity of all the connected issues is difficult at best. Well-made films such as The Symphony of the Soil, which attempt to weave the complexity into a single film narrative, can be tedious in that they include too much information for one sitting. Young people like to spend lots of time in the distracted worlds of social media. They appreciate a short and snappy message. By the way, this goes for adults too.
Build on children’s sense of fairness, and their conviction.
Ask groups of kids if any of them are vegetarians, and then ask why they have made that choice. Most likely, they will talk about their compassion with animals. Tell them they are right. Give them another argument for a vegetarian diet: virtual land take. Production of grain on one hectare of land can feed 30 people a year, while using the same land to produce beef can only feed 3 people. Eating less meat makes a real contribution to soil protection, by reducing the pressure placed on soil to produce food, as well as to reducing hunger in the world.
Include empowering messages.
Yes, your actions do make a difference; because every decision carries weight (I love this part at the end of the film Better Save Soils). Often a lack of information about what people can do to save soils is the problem with soil outreach campaigns. Once you have gotten people’s attention, they appreciate concrete suggestions about what they can to do make a difference.
Some suggestions of personal ways to save soil:
- Eating less meat protects soils.
- Reducing food waste saves soils.
- Paying attention to where and how your food and consumer goods were produced saves soils.
- Buying organic produce is soil protection. Soil life is nurtured, and erosion minimized.
- Demanding that your politicians undertake soil protection through legislation and implementation of this legislation. In Europe the citizens’ initiative People 4 Soil is working for European soil protection.
I do not believe that it is more difficult to reach youth than adults with the message of soil. Many important yet simple messages are not hard to get across. Youth, kids as well as adults can understand the fundamental connection between soil and food once they really think about it. Taking the message to schools or working with school classes means dealing with a captive audience who cannot leave until you are finished. This is helpful, but you do have to make it relevant to their lives, entertaining, and interactive. Then they might really think about it.
Header image: Amy Green