by Huiying Ng
Ms Tan, 29, an urban farmer who has started growing microgreens along her corridor is part of a young community finding itself. She is not only growing Kale or Chinese Bok Choy but has also started searching her neighbourhood for useful materials that can go into a small compost bin, and collecting coffee grounds to add to her soil. She is beginning to find herself talking with neighbours too —- the auntie staying two floors below has been growing herbs for years and they suddenly have something in common to do and talk about. As Ms Tan begins to pay more attention to her plants, she realises that their leaves are starting to wilt after some time. Her new friends in the urban farming circles tell her she needs to replenish her soil, and they give her a long list of recommendations — for mostly purchasable material — but she does not know how to choose what works for her corridor garden. She also knows some neighbours empty their pots and buy new soil when their plants start wilting. The more she delves into her garden and soil, the more she realises how rich soil is, and how the soil on the roadside and outside her block is simply not rich enough for her plants.
5th December is World Soil Day. It might seem strange to celebrate soil when it is all around us, but as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN FAO) pointed out in May 2018, soils are the foundation of a diverse, healthy food system, and our bank account of healthy soil is running out. To address this, the FAO had proposed for a technical committee to be set up. This committee would identify best techniques to remediate or minimise soil pollution, and work at global and local levels to identify the main causes of soil pollutants, to map and model the extent of soil pollution.
Why should people in cities like Singapore care about the state of our soils? There is a close relationship between healthy soils and healthy bodies. As the world’s largest terrestrial pool of carbon, soil is also our biggest carbon sink. Seen as one soil body, global soil is a bit like human skin — the human body’s largest organ, one that transmits moisture and heat between us and the world. Through our skin, we also absorb contaminants, poisons and pollutants; fungal patches and sores begin to fester on unhealthy skin.
Healthy soil allows trees and plants to grow well, and these in turn shield the soil from the elements. Today, chemical contamination from patent-based industrial and household substances leach into soil on farms, factories, and built-up areas where infrastructure for safe waste disposal is absent.
What causes soil pollution?
The production of chemicals has grown rapidly in recent decades and is projected to increase annually by 3.4 percent until 2030. The conventional agricultural industry contributes a major portion of this amount, with its domestic and livestock wastes, as livestock is bred on hormone diets in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) . E-waste from old electronics and plastics are also emerging contributors. We have no idea, really, what happens to plastics as they break down in soil.
To give a sense of the impact of this on human health, levels of persistent organic pollutants in human milk in many regions worldwide are significantly above safe levels. This is especially so in India, and some European and African countries. In Thailand, a major rice-exporting country, bilateral Free Trade Agreements administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives to enforce usage of patent-based agro-chemicals (fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides) across the country. These are sprayed across soils by workers who absorb all its risks: debilitating soil fertility and human health. While much research on these has been conducted public awareness and action about it is still minimal.
The amount of pesticide use in commercial, industrial agriculture has been increasing over the last decade. In Bangladesh its use has quadrupled. In Rwanda and Ethiopia, it has increased by more than 6 times, and in Sudan by 10 times. Every application of agro-chemical adds a layer on the soil, and when it exceeds the soil’s holding capacity, it leaches into surrounding soils and environments.
What can we do?
In Singapore, many urban gardeners meet their first challenge as they first dig into the soil in their community gardens. Over time, persistent gardeners and farmers have cleared local Singapore soil of construction debris, improved soil surface water retention, and created lively hubs in their neighbourhoods. While many gardens use store-bought material to keep the garden productive (and lively), gardens that have involved people in creating their own material from resources in the neighbourhood engage their members, friends and family circles in learning about producing and consuming sustainably — keeping production and consumption costs in balance.
How do we source would-be waste to generate healthy, fertile soil? As urbanites, how might we not only consume, but regenerate the planet in alternative ways? How does the act of making soil also create resources for healthier neighbourhoods and communities?
Foodscape Collective launched a Soil Regeneration Project in 2019, to enable and seed new social-soil communities in urban centres. Soil, we have found, is much more social than we think: the microscopic community of soil offers a mirror to our own human social communities. At the same time, the potential of soil to capture and store carbon in the ground deserves and demands urgent, immediate attention and knowledge co-formation from citizens globally.
We are preparing and holding workshops, and bringing our curriculum to more places, learners and schools. We are in search of more like-minded people and funds to sustain our activities over the next two years (yes!).
If you would like to explore a partnership with us, reach us at email@example.com with an idea for how this could look. Stay in touch with us and tune in to our stories of soil regeneration @soilregenerationproject.
Huiying likes spending time in nature, with critters, and on observing (and acting in) human social life. She is a geographer with a background in psychological research, with a love for synthesis, ideation and exploration. She writes and develops action research methodologies relevant to agroecological futures, and enjoys creating and working with people across disciplines. She is a research assistant on the SEANNET project in Southeast Asia, and posts some of her work on https://anomalousitch.tumblr.com/. You can also find her on cargocollective.com/huiyingng.