Interview With A Soil Scientist – Health, Agriculture & Sustainable Practices

Soil is just the dirt your food is grown in, right? Well, after this interview with Dr Aga Piwowarczyk, you may think differently! Aga is an avid surfer and soil scientist living in Co. Sligo. We talked about why soils matter, why our soils are dying and what governments and individuals can do.


1. Why is Soil Health Important?

I think it's not even soil health; we need to understand why soils are important. Think about a package of almond milk, for example. Soils help us grow the almonds, the soil grows the trees that we use to make the package, and the trees provide oxygen. Soil supports the entire infrastructure, from schools and factories to roads and bridges. Soils should act like a sponge in the environment. The quality of the water that comes out of the ground depends on the health of the soil. Healthy soil will filter out organic and inorganic contaminants and pollutants. Healthy soil provides an environment for the micro-organisms that help create the nutrients in our food. Unhealthy soils produce plants that are unhealthy and lack nutrients. There's a difference between soil health and soil quality. In the past, people were only concerned with how much food soil could produce with fertilisers etc. These days we are looking at the soil biology and how healthy that soil can become.


2. I've heard that globally our soils only have 50 – 100 harvests left. Is this accurate? Can you explain this further, please?

I can’t say we definitely have 50 – 100 years left, as I am not an expert in this research, but I can say that our soils urgently need help. Globally, we lose around twelve million hectares of topsoil every year. A lot of this is due to wind and water erosion. And it can take up to 120 years or more to build just a centimetre of topsoil. Every time we cover soil with concrete or asphalt, we are killing the life in the soil. Just one teaspoon of healthy soil has more organisms in it than people on the planet, so imagine how much life we are killing every single day. There is no legal act anywhere in the world that protects soils. As part of my research on soil compaction, I was involved in a European Framework Directive proposal. Unfortunately, it was voted down in May 2014. It was a big shock for me and many other scientists and experts in the field.


3. How do we regenerate our soils?

There needs to be a massive shift in understanding. It is possible to improve our soil health through our farming practices. In Ireland, there is a move towards agroforestry and the creation of no-dig gardens. Research shows that we can use regenerative agriculture practices anywhere in the world. Land that looks like an absolute desert can be turned into a jungle when, for example, native animals are brought back. This is because they bring life with them. But the animals must be antibiotic and steroid free. Even if you only eat plant-based, those plants were probably fertilised with some sort of animal-derived fertiliser. Though it isn't natural to just spread fertiliser like this, it overloads the soil with nitrogen, and most of the nutrients get washed away.


4. What buying choices can individuals make to help promote soil health?

As consumers, we need to start searching for local producers and farmers. There is a worldwide scheme called Community Supported Agriculture. Where you pay the farmer an annual subscription and get local and organic food. Oftentimes if you can’t pay the fee upfront, you can come and help the farmer around the farm. It's a great deal for the farmers and the consumers. The farmer has a regular source of income, and people have high-quality produce with no funny business. You can find CSA schemes all over Ireland. Not all the farms are listed on the CSA website though, but if you google 'organic farm [your county]' and you will find one.


5. Where can people learn more about soils?

Every year on the 5th of December, we celebrate World Soil Day. This Sunday, the 5th of December, at 7 pm, there is a free event being run by Sligo Environmental Network on Zoom. Anyone can attend, they just need to send an email to sligonetwork@gmail.com, and they’ll get a link to attend.

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