Proceedings of a Workshop
Soils: The Foundation of Life
Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief
On World Soils Day, December 5, 2016, the U.S. National Committee for Soil Sciences convened a workshop on Soils: The Foundation of Life in Washington, DC. The purpose of the workshop was to increase awareness of the complexity of the roles and great importance of soils to national security, food and nutritional security, water quality and renewability, climate change mitigation and adaptation, human health, biological diversity, and more. In each of these areas, presenters spoke on the incorporation of scientific concepts in decisions made at different scales, from national and state policy to the choices that consumers make every day. A panel discussion followed on how soil science can meet the challenges of today and the future. In afternoon breakout sessions, participants discussed opportunities to bring soil-related issues to the forefront and engage policy makers, the public, and other stakeholders.
Expanding beyond the traditional discipline of soil science, the workshop drew about 160 participants in person and virtually from academia, government, research and nonprofit institutions, and industry. It was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Delaware Environmental Institute, METER Group, and Soil Science Society of America.
In the opening session, Donald Sparks (University of Delaware; chair of the U.S. National Committee for Soil Sciences) welcomed participants to the workshop, shared its objectives, and laid out the agenda for the day.
“The study of soils has never been more important. If we look at all these major challenges that we are facing today, in terms of climate change, sea-level rise, contamination, food security, infrastructure needs, national and international security, soils are at the middle of every one of those topics.”—Donald Sparks
SOILS AND SOCIETY
“Those of us who study soils recognize the myriad ways they touch our everyday lives, but for many people, the intersections with nature and human-built systems are surprising,” said Patrick Megonigal (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center) as he opened the morning session. Nine presenters then expanded on what Megonigal described as “the intersections between soils and some of the things that as a society we consider most important.”
Jo Handelsman (White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) highlighted the value of soil to food security, climate mitigation, water quality and availability, bioenergy, human health, and biodiversity.1 Despite the importance of healthy soil,2 global policies and plans devote little attention to the resource. For example, soil is the single largest filter of water, yet it rarely comes up in discussions about water quality. Soil captures and stores carbon (C); through decomposition, a portion of this C is released into the atmosphere—thus, an important consideration in climate change. In relation to human health, two-thirds of our antibiotics come from the soil. Discoveries of new compounds may be a solution for antibiotic resistance, which the World Health Organization calls “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.”
Challenges that threaten soils include changes in land use and cover, unsustainable land-management and agricultural practices, and climate and environmental changes. Sharing data from Iowa, Handelsman showed that estimates of projected soil loss range from 5 tons per acre per year to as much as 100 tons—at this extreme rate, she said, Iowa’s soil would be depleted by 2025. Handelsman observed that an airplane flight over the middle of the United States during many months of the year shows that soil in the Midwest frequently lies open and uncropped, leading to soil degradation and loss. Planting cover crops is a simple but important way to conserve soil.
Handelsman stated that policies to stem the loss of soil have had success, but more effort is needed. She announced the release of The State and Future of U.S. Soils, a framework for a strategic plan that spells out future priorities and commitments by agencies and collaborating organizations to achieve them.3 “We have a lot to celebrate in terms of the breadth and depth of commitment to soil in the past few years, but we must redouble our efforts,” she concluded.
“The intersections between nature and human-built systems are fundamentally at the base of some of the things that we as a society consider most important—the security of food and water, our national security and the viability of the natural systems on which we depend.” —Patrick Megonigal
Climate Change and Sea-Level Rise
To provide context for the rest of the discussions, Susan Trumbore (Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry and University of California, Irvine) explained how soils form and function. Soils develop when rocks interact with air, water, and biota (microorganisms and other living things). They decompose organic matter, supply energy, and recycle nutrients. Soil properties vary greatly, given the Earth’s range of rocks, plants, and climates. For example, soils in the tropics are characterized by high inputs, fast decomposition, and efficient recycling, while boreal soils in colder climates have moderate inputs, slow decomposition, and inefficient recycling in terms of how quickly or in which proportion the nutrients in litter and/or peat are taken up by soil biota.
Soils play a key role in the global C cycle. Trumbore explained that more than 1,500 billion metric tons (Gt) of C are stored in the top meter of soil alone. The amount of C stored in soil is more than the amount of C in the atmosphere and vegetation combined. Given this massive quantity of C, humans’ soil usage affects climate change. Land management contributes to climate change through conversion of forestland to cropland and pasture, which can decrease soil C storage by up to 50 percent over 30 years,4 she said. The amount of C released to the atmosphere increases when land is tilled or left fallow after harvesting crops. Livestock practices can compact soil and the livestock byproducts/waste products increase methane (CH4) emissions, and it has been shown that improperly used synthetic N fertilizers add nitrous oxide (N2O) to the atmosphere.5 Both CH4 and N2O are potent greenhouse gases, with 21 to 310 times higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide (CO2) over 20-year time
1 Rapporteur’s note: Soil is important to national security because the ability of the soil system to sustain biological productivity and all the other factors listed by Handelsman are at the core of a nation’s concerns for its well-being. Degradation of the soil resource and compromise of the ability of the soil system to support human communities is likely to lead to or exacerbate conflicts over resources such as food, water, and nutrients (especially phosphorus).
2 Soil health has been defined as “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living system, within ecosystem and land-use boundaries, to sustain biological productivity, promote the quality of air and water environments, and maintain plant, animal, and human health.”
3 Subcommittee on Ecological Systems, Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability of the National Science and Technology Council. (2016). The State and Future of U.S. Soils: Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science.
4 Amundson, R. 2001. The carbon budget in soils. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 29: 535-562.
5 Millar, N., J.E. Doll, and G.P. Robertson. 2014. Management of nitrogen fertilizer to reduce nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from field crops. Extension Bulletin E3152. East Lansing, MI, USA: Michigan State University.
horizons.6 Analyses of gas trapped in ice bubbles indicate a rapid rise in these three greenhouse gases—CO2, CH4, and N2O—especially since the 1950s.
But the news is not all bad, Trumbore said. Soils also can recapture a significant percentage of C released into the atmosphere. Researchers are working to understand these processes better, which seem to occur through forest regrowth and improved agricultural practices. This capability presents opportunities, Trumbore said. An increase of just four parts per thousand (0.4 percent) in the quantity of C already captured in soil could halt the annual increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. She pointed to the launch of a global, voluntary initiative with this goal in mind.7 Practices such as applying fertilizers more efficiently and using crop methods that minimize CH4 emissions can help meet the global demand for food while mitigating climate change.
Yet what will happen to soils in a warmer world remains uncertain. Arctic warming has the potential to release large stores of frozen organic C from soils into the atmosphere. Trumbore cited one study which concluded that 5 to 15 percent of C in the permafrost zone is vulnerable to release as greenhouse gas within this century.8 Since food will need to be grown under more challenging circumstances, more care will need to be taken to prevent the release of additional CO2 to the atmosphere by intensive cultivation operations.
“Our challenge for the next decade is to use the best science to balance the increased demand for growing food with the consequences of climate change.” —Susan Trumbore
Torbjörn Törnqvist (Tulane University) reported on research showing that coastal wetlands are vulnerable to disappearing as sea levels rise. Why the concern about wetlands and their soils? “Coastal wetlands are a foundation of life,” Törnqvist explained, in that they function as a nursery for marine life, provide storm surge reduction, are used for recreation, serve as a C sink, and provide support for pipelines and other infrastructure. In economic terms, these ecosystem services provide an estimated $200,000 per hectare per year.
Louisiana is home to 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in the contiguous United States. The state is losing wetlands at a rate of about one football field (about 1 acre, or about 2/5 of a hectare) per hour, as measured through the Coastwide Reference Monitoring System.9 The research conducted by Törnqvist and his colleagues focuses on how soils are evolving in coastal Louisiana as the sea level rises. They have been using several monitoring techniques on close to 400 sites in the Mississippi Delta and Chenier Plain in southwestern Louisiana. “These wetlands are dynamic, so you can measure changes over relatively short time scales,” he explained. They concluded that the Chenier Plain, which has limited sediment input, will likely disappear by 2050 with accelerated sea-level rise. The Delta, which has high sediment input, shows some promise in the short term but resilience is likely to be limited.
8 Schuur, E.A.G., et al. (2015). Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback. Nature 520 (7546):171-179.
This dataset is the most detailed of its kind, Megonigal explained when Törnqvist concluded his presentation. Although it focuses on a specific region, “what you see here is occurring elsewhere.”
Water, Health, and Food Security
Starting with water security, Henry Lin (Pennsylvania State University) explained the link between soils and water quantity and quality. Water is classified as blue (e.g., rivers, streams, ponds, reservoirs, other bodies of water), gray (e.g., wastewater, along streets, in utility corridors), or green (e.g., contained in soils in forests, agricultural lands and buffers, and other areas). Lin shared his vision of what he termed a Brown Evolution (i.e. to care for, maintain, and create healthy soils through the implementation of a comprehensive soil conservation policy). This approach should be combined with a Blue Evolution (i.e., combating the looming global freshwater crisis and preventing water pollution to achieve water sustainability in ways that are environmentally sound and economically feasible).
Soil and plants absorb more than 60 percent of total precipitation, most of which is released back into the air through evapotranspiration and is normally unavailable for withdrawal. Of every 13 gallons (the capacity of a compact car’s fuel tank) of water on Earth, only 10 drops are fresh water. Thus, “how we manage water is very important,” Lin said. While most water use comes from “blue” sites, he suggested an integrated green-blue-gray approach to provide freshwater and manage pollution through such measures as green and eco-roofs, stormwater wetlands, and bioswales. “Green water is an overlooked resource,” Lin stated.
Too little water in soils can result in dust-bowl conditions; too much water, in massive landslides. Droughts are expected to intensify in the coming decades. Adoption of precision irrigation in agriculture, which targets irrigation as needed, is slow. Faced with challenges such as these, Lin suggested five paths to securing a foundation of sustainability through resource management: (1) moving from a blue-only to a green-blue-gray approach in land-water management; (2) basing planning and consumption of the planet’s water footprint (i.e., water-dependent economic activities encouraged in water-rich areas and discouraged in water-short areas); (3) advancing the scientific frontiers of hydropedology (integrated water and soil sciences); (4) promoting interdisciplinary science in observatories that study the Earth’s critical zone (the layer of the planet from treetops to groundwater); and (5) cultivating a land-water ethic to realize the dream of the Brown and Blue Evolutions.
Turning to health, José Centeno (International Medical Geology Association) discussed how his discipline focuses on the intersection of medicine, geology, and geography. One aspect of the field is to understand the interrelationship between soils and human health. Soils are important to human health in numerous ways: the crops and water humans consume are grown in or have been in contact with soil, as have livestock and other animals; the air humans breathe may contain dust, which is largely composed of soil; some children and adults eat soil; and many medicines fundamental for human health are derived from organisms within soil. Deficiencies in minerals and trace elements in soil affect human health: while healthy soils support human and ecosystem health, selenium-deficient and iodine-deficient soils negatively influence human health. About 2 billion people are at risk of iodine deficiency disorders caused by a lack of naturally occurring iodine in soils; millions of others live in areas with low-selenium soils. Dust creates hazards that range from impaired visibility to transmittal of harmful physical, chemical, or biological substances. Soil-generated dust has led to disease and infections, for example, the reemergence of the infectious Valley Fever in the southwestern U.S. and elsewhere. Centeno urged greater interaction between the soil science and public health communities.
The third speaker in this portion of the workshop focused on food security. As Pedro Sánchez (University of Florida) explained, food security is a state in which all people in a certain geographical area have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. While pockets of hunger persist today, especially in South Asia and Africa, food insecurity has declined over the past 25 years, even as the population has grown.
Sánchez touched on four challenges that remain. First, nutrition security is the next big challenge, to ensure people consume not only sufficient calories, but also sufficient proteins, fats, and micronutrients. More than 2 billion people suffer “hidden hunger,” in which a chronic lack of vitamins and minerals can lead to mental impairment, poor health and productivity, and possible death. Second, choices must be made about sustainable intensification (more intensively using current agricultural land) versus extensification (expanding to new lands, including clearing of forests). Third, research on tropical soils, which were once considered useless for agriculture because of their acidity, has shown promise, and further work needs to be supported.
The fourth challenge involves increasing crop yields in Africa. Cereal yields in Africa remain the lowest in the world: an estimated 1 ton per hectare versus 3 tons in south and east Asia and 10 tons in North America, Europe, and Japan. Poor soils result in these low yields, reducing capital available to African households. This lack of capital prevents investments in soil nutrients, thus perpetuating the problem. A broken or nonexistent value chain, from the soil inputs through production, processing and storage, and marketing further hampers progress. Increases in crop yield will require a major political commitment, improvements in market and infrastructure, awareness, and many other factors.
New tools have led to greater understanding of the biodiversity within soils in recent years, according to Diana Wall (Colorado State University). This biodiversity benefits humanity and ecosystems. Soils are at the center of global agendas—relevant to health, water, climate change, and other concerns—yet the life in soil itself is often ignored. The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative (GSBI) has accelerated knowledge on soils and increased recognition about the importance of soil biodiversity.
Soil is a dynamic habitat. One-quarter of the Earth’s diversity lies below ground, as many as 100 million different organisms. As an example, an area of about 3.5 km2 in New York City’s Central Park revealed almost 200,000 bacterial and eukaryotic species, most previously unknown.10 Most organisms are found in a single or in very few places. They provide food for wildlife and humans, suppress pathogens, regulate decomposition, enhance above-ground decomposition, filter water, and serve as a reservoir for new pharmaceuticals.
Threats to soil biodiversity include land-use change, climate change, desertification, invasive species, sealing (paving over soil), pollution, soil compaction, and erosion. Reduced soil biodiversity, Wall pointed out, affects human, animal, and plant health. Wall called attention to the June 2016 publication of the Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas11 (freely available online), which compiles data and methods to integrate soil biodiversity in land management. “We can’t breathe, eat, drink, or be healthy without sustainably managing soils,” she concluded.
10 Ramirez, K.S. et al. 2014. Biogeographic patterns in below-ground diversity in New York City’s Central Park are similar to those observed globally. Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 20141988. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.1988.
“There’s so much new knowledge coming along. For example, related to soil biodiversity, how it relates to ecosystem function, how the organisms in soil support our everyday lives, our health, the food we eat, what we drink.” —Diana Wall
Cities and Built Infrastructure
The last segment of the session on soils and society looked at soils in urban environments and at the relationship of soils to built infrastructure throughout the country.
Peter Groffman (City University of New York) focused on soils in the urban environment and the field of urban systems science. “To address problems, we must address humans as part of the system, not external to it,” Groffman said. Fundamental human-environment interactions occur every day, in people’s yards and neighborhoods in urban, suburban, and exurban areas across the country.
Land use changes have led to the “ecological homogenization” of the country in which development creates similar residential landscapes. Research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) is looking at the effects of this homogenization on biodiversity, C and N levels, water, microclimates, quality of life, and other factors in six metropolitan areas with very different climates: Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, and Phoenix. One aspect of the study is to understand why people make the land-use choices they do—for example, to maintain lawns rather than landscaping in keeping with natural conditions—and the ecological implications that may result. Residential land use, Groffman suggested, is often behavior–based. Social and ecological sciences need to work together in cities and other areas where human-environment interactions are so crucial.
Christopher Meehan (University of Delaware) looked at the role of soils in the built environment—including roads, bridges, levees, building construction, and other infrastructure. The current state of infrastructure in the United States is poor, with an estimated $3.6 trillion needed to improve it.12 The 2007 Mississippi River bridge collapse near Minneapolis, the 2005 Hurricane Katrina levee failures in New Orleans, and the 2008 TVA Kingston slurry spill in Roane County, TN are just some examples of infrastructure failures that had disastrous ecological and economic consequences. Soil is the source of most construction materials (either by itself or as an ingredient of other materials). It serves as a support on which building foundations, roads, pilings, and other structures rest. Soils and soil-lining systems are critical to landfills and other waste containment systems, including hazardous waste.
Earthquakes, landslides, and other phenomena affect the built environment. “People need to understand the built environment’s interface with soil,” Meehan said. In their work, engineers look at the strength, compressibility, and permeability of soil. Emerging areas focus on innovative techniques to improve the engineering behavior of soils in a cost-efficient way, and on soil behavior at the micro scale. Soil chemical and biological modifications, as well as research into geothermal energy, represent new opportunities for the infrastructure of the future.
“The solution to a lot of problems we face is good dialogue between scientists, engineers, and policy makers. That is the three-legged stool on which change is built.” —Christopher Meehan
BUILDING BRIDGES TO THE PUBLIC
Photojournalism is a powerful way to present environmental issues to the public, suggested Dennis Dimick (a former editor at National Geographic). As an example, he discussed a special issue of the 2008 magazine that he coordinated, entitled “Where Food Begins.”13 Images powerfully depicted the importance of soil to people’s well-being. Throughout the rest of the workshop, participants returned to the need to find the best way to communicate with policymakers and the general public through images and stories like those shared by Dimick.
PANEL DISCUSSION ON SOILS: THE DISCIPLINE AND THE RESOURCE
Asmeret Asefaw Berhe (University of California, Merced) posed a series of questions to launch the afternoon panel session: What should the soil community’s future goals be? How can we keep the issues of soils at the forefront? How can we align the visions of the soil science community with those of the wider community going forward? A panel consisting of Richard Pouyat (White House Office of Science and Technology
13 Mann, C. “Our Good Earth: The future rests on the soil beneath our feet (Special Issue: “Where Food Begins”)” National Geographic Magazine, September 2008: 80-107.
Policy), Sally Brown (University of Washington), Colin Campbell (METER Group), and Steven Shafer (Soil Health Institute) responded to Berhe’s questions, followed by a discussion session.
Looking to the future, Pouyat called for a “soil movement” and consistent messaging that resonates beyond agriculture. Eighty percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, he pointed out, and they can link to soils where they live—from parks to backyards to a patch of soil alongside the pavement. He also stressed the value in engaging people to collect data and promote food security. We need to collaborate, he stressed, because solutions will not come from just one sector of society.
Brown suggested greater involvement with the food industry and environmental groups. For example, the Soil Health Roadmap, a partnership between General Mills and The Nature Conservancy, outlines steps related to science, economics, and policy to expand soil management across more U.S. land.14 She also referred participants to efforts to monetize the value of soil conservation and other environmental improvements, such as by Earth Economics, an organization based in Tacoma, WA, that applies economic tools to environmental decision making.15
Campbell stressed the need to involve soil science in land-use decisions. He lamented that the government did not turn to soil science in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in 2011. Bringing in new stakeholders is one way to promote soil science, and he pointed to an initiative that has placed 10,000 weather stations in schools across Africa as a step in the right direction.
14 “Healthy soils could deliver nearly $50 billion in benefits annually.” The Nature Conservancy, November 1, 2016. http://www.nature.org/newsfeatures/pressreleases/healthy-soils-could-deliver-nearly-50b-in-benefits-annually.xml.
To Shafer, “soil health is a great integrating principle” because, as the morning speakers highlighted, it affects humans in so many ways. The general public may not want to or need to understand all the technical aspects, he said, but they do want to know about the problems and the impact of possible solutions. Economic analysis is critical because it can lead to policies and soil-related incentives and disincentives.
Issues raised during the discussion session included the importance of messages, the opportunities and limitations of urban agriculture, and the need to teach soil science in other disciplines, at all grade levels, and in different settings. A participant noted the power of stories related to soil. Urban agriculture social media were suggested as ways to bring home the message that “soil is the foundation of food.” Berhe noted that many of her students have connected with the message about the antibiotics discovered from soils. Community composting and outdoor education for young children can also provide valuable experiences. Dimick agreed with the need to appeal to people’s enlightened self-interest as an entry point to other issues related to soil health. The geoscience community should work together on earth science-related topics; collaboration is important, suggested one participant. Another noted that people tend to react to a public health crisis, such as drinking-water contamination in Flint, MI, while “soil in crisis is a longer game.” The message must transcend political divisions, another participant pointed out: “We have to care [about soil] no matter who we are; it is a question of our future.”
Participants divided into five small breakout groups organized by the topics addressed in the morning plenary session: climate change and sea-level rise; water, health, and food security; biodiversity; cities and built infrastructure (urban); and national security. The breakout groups considered the same set of questions and then reported to the plenary at the end of the afternoon. Sample comments are provided below.
1) What are the most compelling issues to address in the next decade?
Several participants of the biodiversity breakout group, moderated by Mary Beth Adams (USDA-Forest Service), mentioned the value of more data linking soil biodiversity with soil health and ecosystem services, along with a better understanding of the variability across scales or when changes occur. Multiple participants in the climate change and sea-level rise group, moderated by Rodrigo Vargas (University of Delaware), stated that changes in temperature and precipitation will affect soils; and that, conversely, healthy soils can help buffer against some of the impacts of climate change. Some added that soil erosion will worsen without action to stop it because climate change leads to more intense rain events that likely mobilize considerable amounts of topsoil, especially on lands under intensive cultivation. Several participants of the urban breakout group, moderated by Alain Plante (University of Pennsylvania), mentioned that Goal 11 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals—“Making cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable”—requires healthy soil and soil ecosystem services; and that because the study of soils in built environments is recent, knowledge of the basic functions, processes, and properties is lacking. Some of the participants in the national security breakout group, whose moderator was Ronald Checkai (U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center), stated that food and water insecurity lead to political disruption such as war and migration; and that, conversely, economic and political stability depend on access to land and land tenure. A few participants also said that the effect of climate change on soils near military facilities, including the cost of cleanup, and the ability to deploy in an emergency, is important. Several participants in the water, food, and health breakout group, moderated by Alfred Hartemink (University of Wisconsin, Madison), said that improved agricultural techniques, management of freshwater resources, integrating science into the regulatory landscape, and sustainable agriculture will affect soil health and water and food security, as well as human health.
2) What topics do you find surprise the public, regulators, or politicians, and how can the science-policy-perception gaps be bridged?
Participants of the climate change breakout group discussed the fact that soil is alive, and it forms very slowly. Sea levels are rising because of climate change, but problems can be mitigated with action. A few participants in the national security breakout group mentioned that soils and national security are related through droughts, dams, and other issues. In the biodiversity breakout group, one participant said that “Soil can kill you and cure you”—on the one hand, pathogenic organisms can harm humans, but the next treatment for antibiotic-resistant infections that comes from soils could be just around the corner. Members of the water, food, and health breakout group suggested that moving from research to practice takes time—more time than most non-scientists expect—and the challenge to bridge the gap between science and policy remains. Science often deals in nuance, but
policymakers need more clear-cut answers. Weather forecasting may provide a good example of how to communicate uncertainty, some suggested.
3) How can the support and resources needed be mobilized, and interests of agencies, industry, foundations, and others be leveraged more effectively?
Several participants from the climate-change breakout group indicated that farmers see the changes created by climate change, whatever the cause, and are receptive to the need to adapt their practices. Scientists should communicate with them and other stakeholders through social media, extension services, and other means to deliver messages about soil health, they said. Several participants in the urban breakout group talked about how the public is increasingly interested in urban agriculture, green infrastructure, and green spaces. There are scientific frontiers to explore related to soil formation and rates, sourcing of materials, paradigms for mapping urban soils, soil contamination and remediation, and spatial variability. In the national security breakout group, some of the participants noted that partners include multinationals who want to protect their investments, private-sector research and development, philanthropic foundations, citizen engagement, and others, and that the messages need to be simplified. A few participants in the biodiversity breakout group mentioned that citizen science projects can help in broad sampling and understanding of the microbiome in many places, and that programs in which soil scientists serve as policy interns in professional societies, universities, and other programs are important to frame information about soils. Some of the water, food security, and health breakout group participants mentioned that it is essential to explain why the research being undertaken matters. Scientists and other groups need to engage in the applied transfer of research outcomes and discoveries, they said.
4) Does the workforce exist to address the issues, and what innovative outreach vehicles can deliver the soils message to the wider public?
Several participants in the urban breakout group observed that historically, “farm kids” populated soil science programs in universities, and that these programs need to evolve to address the interdisciplinary aspects of urban systems to reach new student populations. A few participants from the national security breakout group suggested that infographics can convey information about soils to the wider public and that partnerships between researchers and other stakeholders can provide firm information on the science. Some of the biodiversity breakout group participants noted that many young scientists from other disciplines are interested in soils—their microbiology, their organisms, and how they function. Participants in the water, food security, and health breakout group discussed connections with the public, perhaps starting with early adopters in both rural and urban communities, who could be leveraged to gain greater impact.
COMMUNICATE LIKE A ROCK STAR
Ronald Amundson (University of California, Berkeley) closed the workshop, underscoring the fact that soil is a complex system, a system of cycles that exist in balance. Human interventions through agriculture, development, and other activities disrupt these cycles. Presenters throughout the workshop, he noted, discussed ways to deal with human-induced disruptions in the system. Convincing people about the important linkages between soils and other issues of concern requires communication.
Polls consistently show that the public perceives the economy, distrust of government, and other issues with a far higher priority than the environment, noted Amundson. Communication with diverse populations about the importance of soil security goes beyond educating with facts. Research into the “science of science communications” has shown that most people can hear facts and argue them away if they do not fit with their existing beliefs, values, and community connections.16 He suggested an alternate approach—“You don’t lead with facts. You lead with values to give the facts a fighting chance.” He cited Bono as an example; the rock musician garners support for issues, such as debt relief for Africa, by finding common ground with others, no matter their political points of view or other beliefs. “We have to know what is important to our audiences and connect on points of commonality, explaining issues in terms of their values systems,” Amundson urged. He made the following suggestions:
- In the long term, universities need to change. Different academic disciplines are often in separate silos, but science departments need to connect with policy and economics.
16 For more background on this topic, Amundson referred participants to an Arthur M. Sackler colloquium, convened in 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences, on the Science of Science Communication. http://www.nasonline.org/programs/sackler-colloquia/about-the-sackler-colloquia.html.
- Nongovernmental organizations, foundations, and other groups should invest in the science of science communications to understand how best to connect with the public on soil and other scientific issues.
- The National Academy of Sciences, National Science Foundation, and other agencies can provide leadership in breaking down silos. He suggested these institutions recognize sustainability as a science, across disciplines, and ensure it receives the funding it needs.
- Talk about soil like a rock star—like Bono does; connect with people and their value systems.
Amundson and Ester Sztein (Board on International Scientific Organizations at the National Academies) concluded the workshop by thanking the sponsors, presenters, attendees, and staff for their participation.
“Talking about science involves understanding people as much as the Earth.” —Ronald Amundson
DISCLAIMER: This Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief has been prepared by Paula Whitacre and Ester Sztein as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop. The planning committee’s role was limited to planning and convening the workshop. The views contained in this Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief are those of individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all workshop participants, the planning committee, or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
PLANNING COMMITTEE ON SOILS: THE FOUNDATION OF LIFE WORKSHOP: Donald Sparks (Chair, University of Delaware), Ronald Amundson (University of California, Berkeley), Asmeret Asefaw Berhe (University of California, Merced), Patrick Megonigal (Smithsonian Institution), William Schlesinger (Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, emeritus), and STAFF: Ester Sztein, Assistant Director; and Pamela Gamble, Administrative Assistant, BISO.
We wish to thank Maeve Boland (American Geosciences Institute), Nancy Cavallaro (USDA), Mary Ann Levan (Delaware Nature Society), and Andrew Sharpley (University of Arkansas) for their help in the breakout groups.
REVIEWERS: To ensure that it meets institutional standards for quality and objectivity, this Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was reviewed in draft form by Sally Brown, University of Washington; Alex McBratney, University of Sydney, Australia; and Garrison Sposito, University of California, Berkeley. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the process.
SPONSORS: This workshop was supported by the United States Department of Agriculture, the Delaware Environmental Institute, the METER Group, and the Soil Science Society of America.
Presentations and video recordings from the workshop are available at: http://sites.nationalacademies.org/PGA/biso/SS/PGA_174671.
Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Soils: The Foundation of Life: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, doi: https://doi.org/10.17226/24866.
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