The Political Ecology of Soil
The aim of this report is to share the key learning from my output period focused on soils. As a political agroecologist, I have spent the majority of my MSc degree linking huge fields of politics, economics, social change, and agroecology. I have explored power relations at different temporal and spatial scales. In my projects, I am commonly contending with complexity and managing multiple moving parts. It became clear to me that I was craving focus and what better to focus on then one of my biggest passions and favourite areas of learning - soil.
This output explores what I have described as ‘the political ecology of soils’: the multiple factors that are threatening and destroying soils all over the world through capitalist development and other forces. It shares the emerging actors that are trying to raise the profile of soil in mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration, as well as those engaged in grassroots soil remediation and restoration projects.
Gaia University is an educational model based on action learning and real-world projects. This output also shares my applied learning at different scales, from a national network called SoilHack to a remediation project at a local toxic site in my area. As an Education and Training Coordinator with my workers’ co-operative, Feed Avalon, I am also responsible for organising accessible adult learning opportunities. This output shares the soil-orientated courses that I have been organising.
Finally, I share my learning pathway design for developing my knowledge and increasing my competency and confidence in soil-related skills that can support agroecology movements and practitioners.
Why soils? In the words of Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro:
“Soils, as intrinsic parts of largely land-based ecosystems, provide us with the most basic means to sustain ourselves, including the purification and cycling of major sources of water. Every year, they enable the proliferation of all sorts of organisms, many of them directly and indirectly crucial to our lives. This is besides establishing the conditions for the human production of millions of tons of food and fiber. Most life on land would therefore not even exist without soils and, indeed, neither would we. We all depend on soils for our very survival because, at a minimum, we all have to drink water and eat. And without functioning soils, those basic resources are endangered.”
Political ecology has been described as the study of the relationships between political, economic and social factors with environmental issues and changes. Political ecology differs from apolitical ecological studies by politicising environmental issues.
It is clear with current threats to soils and factors in soil degradation that these are driven by multiple forces, not just ecological or biophysical factors. In this section, I aim to explore some of the political, economic, and social factors shaping our soils and how they intersect with the biophysical nature of soils.
Defining soil degradation is subjective. In his amazing book Soils, Ecology, and the Left, Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro writes how soil degradation, aside from involving a perceptual change, is a change in soil quality (its bio-physicochemical properties) that constrains or prevents the fulfilment of everyone’s survival needs and that undermines the development or reproduction of an egalitarian society. By everyone, this could be contrasted with typical anthropocentric tendencies and consider all forms of life, not just humans. This may include the soil biota, as well as the broader ecosystems of which soils are part.
There are many forms of degradation, which of course, interrelate and require complex thinking to analyse effectively:
- Biological degradation encompasses changes in soils that negatively affect other organisms and therefore the overall functioning of an ecosystem (Engel-Di Mauro, 2014). Impacts on soil-dwelling organisms, that could be indicated by respiration rates of microbes, worm counts, bioassays and so forth.
- Chemical degradation refers to the alteration of the chemical properties of soil such that there are negative repercussions for the ecosystem of which a soil is part (Engel-Di Mauro, 2014). For example, changes in pH or contamination by heavy metals and so forth.
- Physical degradation is the negative modification of the physical properties of a soil (Engel-Di Mauro, 2014). For example, impacts on soil structure through the use heavy equipment, or soil erosion from wind and water.
Soils are shaped by many forces beyond humans, whether this glacial advances or asteroid impacts. It is not just humans who can degrade soils. This is important when exploring why a soil has degraded (if we subjectively perceive that there is degradation).
For the purposes of this output, I am focusing on the human-societal influences on soil degradation and regeneration because these are the most common blind spots in soil science research. Engel-Di Mauro calls this ‘pedological reductionism’. To communicate this to the reader, I have chosen to use brief bullet points, which obviously do not give the complexity of these issues the space they need, however, serve as an introduction or thinking point for people starting to reflect on social-economic factors of soil degradation:
- Detachment and displacement from soil - in the words of Engel-Di Mauro - the forced expulsions of people from land on which they subsist, with massacres and genocides, misogynistic and racist violence, militarily forced displacement, colonization, and other forms of coercion that reverberate across generations.
- Problematic tendencies in the scientific community - that social scientists theorising environmental degradation will not always integrate biophysical knowledge (or will repeat it blindly). Scientific complicity in the privileging of agrochemical farming by most higher educational establishments and support of the state and capital to aggressively promote these methods.
- Generically blaming farming practices, rather than accounting for diverse land management relationships with diverse peoples all over the planet. This dichotomy enhances problematic human/nature divisions and is ecologically illiterate in observing changes in soils over time.
- Aligning soil degradation with problematic worldviews, that can be scientifically discounted, such as populationism, civilizationism and catastrophism.
- Failures in soil analysis to interpret soil quality and degradation to account for social relationships, especially those of domination. As well as the privileging of one form of knowledge over diverse indigenous and traditional knowledge systems. Engel-Di Mauro highlights that even when soil scientists recognize the legitimacy of other forms of soil knowledge, they are unable to escape a bourgeois and/or settler-colonial ideology.
- Limited soil classification systems that reproduce national state ideologies and borders, that don’t account for ecological realities. Soil treated as a technical and inert space or medium for production.
- The imposition of certain, mostly industrial capitalist, farming methods that prioritise profit over soil quality, ecosystem health or respect for human life.
- The development of frameworks that perpetuate capitalist ideology, such as ecosystem services, or carbon credits, that enabled continued exploitation of humans and nonhumans without addressing deeper systemic issues.
- Those taking responsibility for suggesting interventions for addressing soil degradation failing to do so effectively because they “continue to disconnect soil erosion from social context and to treat it as if a straightforward arithmetical matter." (Engel-Di Mauro, 2014).
- Attempted, and actual destruction and displacement of indigenous communities and traditional land management models, as well as the scientific neutrality that erases colonial histories and contemporary colonial arrangements.
- Synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.
- Fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure, such as fracking.
- Deforestation and land degradation for capitalist agriculture especially animal agriculture driven by capitalism and carnism
- Mining and associated industries.
- Compaction via heavy machinery and inappropriate animal grazing.
- Sealing of soils for development with materials such as cement.
- Expansion of industrialised urban areas and infrastructure.
- Acid rain and other industry-related influences on soil chemistry.
- Inappropriate ploughing, tillage and harvesting.
- Soils harmed by pollution, such as rubbish, construction debris and so forth (in addition to industrial legacies).
- Changes in land use, such as terrace abandonment or depopulation.
- Access to land and land inequalities.
- Soil commodification, especially the sale of topsoil.
- Dams and alterations to watersheds.
- Large-scale construction and the import/export/extraction of materials.
- Legacies of bombing, unexploded ordinances and militaristic impacts on land.
- Concentrations of heavy metals from industrial capitalism. It is estimated that the toxicity from metal contamination can reduce the diversity of soil bacteria by as much as 99.9 percent, even if the total biomass of bacteria is unaffected (Engel-Di Mauro, 2014).
- Induced salinisation.
- Wind and water erosion (natural processes can also often be influenced and accelerated by social relations, such as deforestation due to capitalist enterprise, or the increase in storms as a factor of anthropogenic climate change).
- The political struggles producing fields, farms/estates, and nation-states (Engel-Di Mauro, 2014).
- Austerity e.g. cuts to composting schemes, subsidies to small farmers etc.
All of these aggravating factors of soil degradation require not just biophysical interventions, such as remediation work, but they require the re-designing of society. They require the renegotiation of social relationships, of economic systems, of power - hence why the field of political agroecology is essential.
Most simply, in the words of Eric Toensmeier, agricultural carbon sequestration involves removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in soil organic matter and in the aboveground biomass of long-lived plants and trees (perennials). This natural part of the carbon cycle provides us with a powerful tool for climate mitigation.
Through building organic matter in soils we can not only sequester carbon, but also adapt to some of the impacts of climate change. Soil related sequestration and adaptation strategies listed by Toensmeier, in his incredible book ‘The Carbon Farming Solution’ include no-till, SRI (system of rice intensification), mulching, rotations and cover crops, perennial crops, agroforestry, silvopasture and managed grazing.
While sequestering carbon is a powerful strategy, it needs to be combined with a wholesale redesign of capitalist society and a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel extraction (some even call for its abolition) - both of which require community organising and unprecedented social movement building.
However, it is clear that soils do play a significant role in mitigating and adapting to climate change, and what is not often given attention is the affect that climate change could have on soils themselves. This led me to research this area further.
The table below looks at four climatic scenarios and their potential impact on soil degredation processes. Below the table, one can see whether these factors are natural or human-influenced. What is significant to note for readers from the UK is the role of water in our landscape increasing soil erosion, acidification and water logging. Landscape scale water management strategies are going to be integral for climate change adaptation. For myself, living in Somerset with its seasonal flooding, adaptation to climate change is going to bring many challenges and necessary improvements in how we manage the land in relationship to hydrological forms and cycles.
This graphic is from G. Várallyay, The impact of climate change on soils and on their water management, Agronomy Research 8 (Special Issue II), 385–396, 2010.
Climate change could also impact mineral stress, as communicated in this table: As well as mineral stress, climate change may also affect soil texture, as well as how the formation of organic matter could be affected:
The above graphics and one below are from: Rajib Karmakar, Indranil Das, Debashis Dutta and Amitava Rakshit,2016. Potential effects of climate change on soil properties: Areview .Sci.Int., 4: 51-73.
To summarise the complex links between climate change and soil health, I found this final schematic representation that captures all of the above and communicates it with more simplicity:
While limited by word counts, I wanted to include these graphics to highlight the absolute relevance and necessity of paying attention to soils at this moment in time in relationship to a changing climate.
In the words of Thomas Henry and Gil Penha-Lopes, authors of Permaculture and Climate Change Adaptation, enhancing soil health addresses both the symptoms and causes of climate change, improving adaptive capacity in several different dimensions while actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Another area of my work and research during this output period has been exploring soil pollution and bioremediation. My workers co-operative, Feed Avalon, is engaged in a grassroots project to remediate an area of land where our community garden is. Please see the section 'Morlands Remediation' for more information.
Permaculture practitioner and community organiser, Scott Kellogg (2016) writes: "The past 150 years of industrial processes have left a legacy of toxicity in the soils of today’s urban environments. Exposure to soil-based pollutants disproportionately affects low- income communities who are frequently located within formerly industrialized zones. Both gardeners, who come into direct contact with soil, as well as those who eat the products grown in the soil, are at risk to exposure from industrial contaminants."
What is Bioremediation?
Bioremediation is the process of using the biological properties of naturally occurring organisms, primarily microorganisms, fungi and plants, to degrade, immobilize or sequester environmental toxins. (Kellogg, 2016) . Leila Darwish, author of the incredibly inspiring book 'Earth Rapir' says that bioremediation works with living systems to detoxify contaminated environments. It includes microbial remediation (engaging the healing power of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi), phytoremediation (engaging the healing power of plants) and mycoremediation (engaging the healing power of mushrooms) to heal contaminated and damaged lands and waters.
There is already a wide variety of tools used by professional environmental engineers to remediate landscapes. However, as Scott Kellog writes, "options for low-income communities for remediating contaminated soils are limited, with most remediation work being carried out by costly engineering firms. Even more problematic is the overall lack of awareness and available information regarding safety and best practices with soils."
For ourselves in Somerset, remediation on this scale is simply financially impossible, even finding information on historic remediation efforts has been a challenge. Power holders have not disclosed historic contamination, despite common local knowledge of its inevitability. We decided to take action ourselves and learn about how we can remediate our area.
Scott describes how "a grassroots movement has emerged that seeks to empower urban residents with the tools and information necessary to address residual industrial toxicity in their ecosystems. Focusing on methods that are simple and affordable, this movement wishes to remove the barriers of cost and technical expertise that may be otherwise prohibitive."
Leila says how true grassroots bioremediation and earth repair aspire to the following:
- Community accessibility and affordability
- Working with nature to assist in its healing
- DIY remediation, restoration and regeneration techniques that are high impact, low input, non-toxic, simple and easy to replicate
- Prioritising deep ecological healing and community justice as the motivating force
- Embedding the skills and necessary infrastructure in our communities, especially communities most at risk for environmental disasters and contamination issues
- Applying whole systems, multi-kingdom, multi-species, multi-tool approaches
- Honouring local knowledge, local resources and engaging local decision making
- Empowering people to directly respond to their circumstances and crises in ways that increase their knowledge and self-determination and result in real improvements for the planet and their communities
- Avoiding externalising the problem wherever possible
- Challenging and actively resisting the privatising and corporate ownership of solutions, spaces and living beings
- Engaging in the powerful preventative medicine of resistance through grassroots organising and mobilising to stop destructive projects from going ahead
- Acknowledging that it takes a community to make an earth repair project successful and seeking to build and maintain respectful relationships and trust with out many living earth repair allies (bacteria, plants, fungi, animals, people, ecosystems).
This incredibly inspiring list is what we aspire to with Feed Avalon. My interest as a designer right now is developing skills in grassroots remediation through this project so that we can support others to do so in a country recovering from industrialisation.
Scott summarises it beautifully:
"The generative justice approach to citizen bioremediation greatly increases the capacity of a local community to address the persistent pollutants found in its soils in a manner that lessens their dependence on high-cost industrial approaches. Over time, and through greater sharing of techniques and information, citizen bioremediation could play a significant role in promoting the agendas of both the environmental justice and urban agriculture communities. Through forming mutually beneficial partnerships between humans, plants, fungi, and microbes in the process of bioremediation, the critical interdependencies necessary for socio- ecological health can be re-established." (Kellogg, 2016)
Solidarity with Soils:
Soils and Social Movements, Grassroots Projects and Practical Action
As part of my output, I researched several grassroots soil-related projects happening around the world.
One of which is the Amazon Mycorenewal Project, an effort to research and implement bioremediation strategies and support affected communities in the abandoned oil pits of Ecuador. They have been researching the potential of IOS-500 Bacteria to degrade petrochemicals, as well as undertaking a Fungal Enzyme Assay, which is examining the species and enzymes of native fungi with potential for mycoremediation.
The Compost Education Centre in Victoria, Canada have been organising community education in composting, as well as mapping soil quality and offering free soil testing as part of their ‘Healing City Soil’s project. They have a whole collection of high quality factsheets here.
I was also fascinated by the work of Nancy Klehm, an ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticultural consultant, and permacultural grower who has supported a wide variety of grassroots soil-related projects.
I followed the process of youarethecity who rehabilitated a brownfield site at La Finca del Sur, a community farm in the South Bronx. They created a Field Lab where they plant, monitor, and harvest several varieties of plants known for their qualities to remove toxins from the soil. They produced a guide that documented their process.
There are also projects that take more of a lobbying approach People4Soil are asking for European-wide soil protection. The RECARE project is also documenting solutions across Europe to develop effective prevention, remediation and restoration measures. They have more than 28 videos on their work.
Many people are also doing some amazing media work to raise the profile of the importance of soil. One project is “Kiss the Ground” who have created the Story of Soil and Story of Compost as online media projects. Other online initiatives such as the Global Compost Project are collating huge amounts of vital resources on soil carbon on more.
At Earth Fort, I surveyed the field to see who was professionally offering soil-related consultancy services. All of these projects helped inform the design of the Morlands Remediation Project and generate ideas for my role in SoilHack.
In May 2017, I was part of the organising collective that organised the first SoilHack Gathering in the UK. I introduced SoilHack in my last output packet, focusing on its contribution to soil science education. You can read it here. SoilHack is a knowledge sharing network focused on soil. It is part of the FarmHack movement and has been born out of the need to save what soils we have with the best information possible.
In the UK, SoilHack has existed as a twitter account, shared email list and wiki to share information on events and latest soil research. We decided to organise the first national SoilHack Gathering to help build the movement and it took place at the land project where I live, Brook End in Somerset in May 2017. The gathering hosted more than 19 different workshops presented by participants on topics such as composting, biochar, soil biology, fungi, cover crops and more
A very influential quote during this output is in Engel-Di Mauro’s book, where he says,
“But it seems that without an adequate grasp of a biophysical science, and the practical skills it can enable, any talk of revolution becomes rather vacuous. Biophysical scientists have proven historically to be largely subservient to the ruling regime of the day (and sometimes emphatically aligned with the ruling classes).
It must become for the left a priority to develop supportive frameworks designed to cultivate interest and impart skills in the biophysical sciences. These could take the form of informal institutions, independently established and managed grassroots infrastructure such as soil and water analysis labs, and research agendas that explicitly meld political commitment with biophysical scientific work without collapsing one into the other. Even having time dedicated within leftist organizations to discuss the issue, to educate one another in one or another biophysical science, and to share and develop such knowledge and skills could help further the process of unifying the sciences, liberating them from the capitalist grip, and channel them toward much more socially sensitized and responsible ends.”
I believe SoilHack has the potential to develop this grassroots infrastructure of soil education and research.
I wanted to share more developed design thinking for this output, however, this felt impossible while other members of the collective needed to step back temporarily following the Summer Gathering. We will therefore meet in the New Year to discuss next steps.
I have, however, included a mind map of initial design thinking for SoilHack:
In my role as Educating and Training Coordinator for Feed Avalon, I aimed to use this output time to gauge training needs around soils for my local area. From this observation exercise, I will be integrating the following courses into the curriculum for 2018:
- An 8-week course in Practical Mycology - learning the different stages of mushroom cultivation, lab culture, mycoremediation and more. With two experienced practitioners and teachers from Bristol.
- A one-day course in Composting with Nicky Scott, composting expert.
- A one-day course in Soil Health for Growers with Niels Corfield, a soil and tree specialist.
- A one-day course in Compost Tea Making.
- A three-week course in Carbon Farming with Niels Corfield, aimed at local farmers and landworkers.
- A three-day SoilHack Gathering that has longer workers to create a better learning environment.
All the details will be uploaded to the Feed Avalon website. I will aim to share the session plans and handouts via the SoilHack network.
The Morlands site is an area of Glastonbury with an historical legacy of industrial land-use, mostly a tannery and manufacturing site for leather and sheepskin.
After being squatted by local college students, a large building on the site was saved from demolition and has been reclaimed to become a successful community building called the 'Red Brick Building'.
My worker's co-op, Feed Avalon, has helped managed a community garden on the site for the last 3 years. Thankfully, most of the beds we made were newly constructed and with imported soil and compost. An anonymous person sent us some documentation detailing the historical contamination of the site and it became clear that there was still a legacy of contamination that could potentially affect us and other users of the site, as well as the broader ecosystems.
Historical toxicology reports show elevated levels of chromium (not chromium VI), arsenic, zinc, petroleum hydrocarbons and other volatile and semivolatile compounds in the soil. There are also elevated levels of chromium, copper and ammonium in the groundwater.
We therefore decided to launch our own grassroots bioremediation project to help remediate the last remnants of soil contamination. My intention with this output, was to put together a comprehensive design of the project. However, this became impossible in our time frame, as we are still gathering the resources and scientific support that we need to design and launch the project. Feed Avalon are currently seeking support from scientists and students to undertake further water and soil samples with the intention of designing and implementing the bioremediation project.
To prepare for this project, Bonita Everson from Feed Avalon, with many fantastic volunteers, have built facilities to produce mushrooms at the Red Brick Building Community Garden. This includes a large growing shed, as well as outdoor facilities. A shipping container has been converted into a laboratory that will be used to produce spawn cultures and other material for fungi production. The mushroom enterprise will create livelihoods in the local area in community food production. After wages and costs, all profits will be re-invested in Feed Avalon and our wider grassroots community food work locally.
At present we are focusing on developing the skills and infrastructure locally so that we can produce fungi to aid the remediation of the area. We are also organising an advanced composting course and applying for funding so that we can build composting and compost tea making infrastructure on site, as well as developing a plant nursery. All of these elements will feed into a very long-term project that we wish to document so that we can eventually support people from other areas. Britain, being the first industrialised country on earth, has an invisible legacy of contamination, whereby pollution mostly affects working class communities. We hope that we can be a seed in a larger movement to address these issues and heal the land. To keep updated on the project visit: https://www.feedavalon.org.uk/mushroom-cultivation-bioremediation-project/
As Engel-Di Mauro writes, “There is little prospect in social theory for explaining how capitalistic practices impact soils without learning about soils themselves.” I have therefore aimed to design a soil learning pathway that can help address the gaps in my knowledge.
Please note this is not included in the word count, but included for reference. You can click on the map and download it from the xmind website - it will be easier to read.
In conclusion, I have aimed to illustrate the broad social and ecological forces that are shaping soils. I have communicated why soils are important and explored many drivers of soil degradation, from biophysical processes such as wind and water erosion to political forces such as colonialism that are displacing people and their traditional soil management practices.
I have introduced the role of soils in responding to one of the biggest issues of our time - climate change. Interrogating both their role in carbon sequestration and climate change adaptation, as well as how soils themselves may be impacted by a changing climate. I have introduced the field of bioremediation and how grassroots groups are responding to the toxic legacies of industrial capitalism.
Finally, I have used all of this study of the political ecology of soils to develop formative ideas for SoilHack as a national network, as well as contribute to the design of a popular education initiative around soils with Feed Avalon, in addition to our bioremediation project. I end this output by describing my next steps in terms of my soil learning pathway.
I close with the following quote:
“Stated differently, depending on the historically variable and mutually influencing relationship between people and soil (or other ecological) dynamics, capitalist destructive tendencies (1) have resulted and are resulting in actual devastation for many (but not all) of the least empowered communities and (2) are creating problems where they arguably do not exist (e.g., soil exhaustion) so as to facilitate the intensification of capitalist control over the means to life.”
I hope that this body of work will inspire people to take action in solidarity with soils and see soils as an intrinsic part of social struggles for freedom and self-determination for all beings.
Thank you so much for reading.
All-party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology (2016). Soils and Climate Change.
Carpenter, J. and Carpenter, M. (n.d.). The organic medicinal herb farmer.
Darwish, L. (n.d.). Earth repair.
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2009). Safeguarding our Soils, A Strategy for England.
Design, D. (2017). Contaminated Land Remediation Syllabus [1 June 2016]. [online] Wamitab.org.uk. Available at: http://www.wamitab.org.uk/pg/contaminated-land-remediation-syllabus-1-june-2016 [Accessed 2 Jun. 2017].
Dowding, C. (2011). How to grow winter vegetables. Totnes, Devon: Green Books.
Dowding, C. (n.d.). Salad leaves for all seasons.
Engel-Dimauro, S. (2016). Ecology, soils, and the left. [Place of publication not identified]: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gatter, M. and McKee, A. (2010). How to grow food in your polytunnel. Totnes, Devon England: Green Books.
Gentilly Resident's Guide to Do It Yourself Soil Clean Up Using Natural Processes. (2009).
G. Várallyay, The impact of climate change on soils and on their water management, Agronomy Research 8 (Special Issue II), 385–396, 2010
Hall, J. and Tolhurst, I. (2007). Growing green. White River Junction, Vt: Chelsea Green.
Henfrey, T. and Penha-Lopes, G. (2016). Permaculture and climate change adaptation. Hampshire, United Kingdom: Permanent Publications.
Kellogg, S. (2016). Community based bioremediation: grassroots responses to urban soil contamination. Teknokultura, 13(2).
Lowenfels, J. (2015). Teaming with nutrients. Portland: Timber Press.
Lowenfels, J. and Lewis, W. (n.d.). Teaming with microbes.
Montgomery, D. (2012). Dirt. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.
Ohlson, K. (n.d.). The soil will save us!.
Rajib Karmakar, Indranil Das, Debashis Dutta and Amitava Rakshit,2016. Potential effects of climate change on soil properties: Areview .Sci.Int., 4: 51-73.
Restrepo Rivera, J. and Hensel, J. (2017). The ABC of organic agriculture, phosphites and stone meal.
Scott, N. (2010). How to Make and Use Compost. New York: UIT Cambridge Ltd.
Sustainable Food Trust (2015). Soil Degradation: A Major Threat to Humanity.
Toensmeier, E. (n.d.). The carbon farming solution.