Giving You the Dirt on Soil

Few things matter more to humans than soil. Really—it’s quite the superhero! It’s the foundation of food production and security, it’s Earth’s largest water filter and storage tank, it contains more carbon than all above-ground vegetation, and it is home to a tremendous diversity of organisms of key importance to ecosystem processes.

With that in mind, it’s worrying that today, one third of our soils are moderately or highly degraded due to erosion, loss of organic carbon, salinization, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution. The current rate of soil degradation threatens the capacity of future generations to meet their most basic needs.

Yikes! But wait – there’s hope…

A hundred years ago when I was studying for an exam on sustainable building practices, I read a tiny bit about using bioremediation to clean up contaminated soil. Since then, I’ve always been intrigued and excited about this—the idea that nature can remedy itself is so hopeful! So, I was super excited to speak to Christa Herrmann from Terrabiom, a startup in Impact Hub Basel’s Incubator program. Using science to improve degraded soil, therefore improving life for all, is what Terrabiom is all about.

Before understanding what Terrabiom does and why, it’s important to learn about what motives them—that is, soil. I doubt many of us think about soil very often. Boring! Am I right?!

Wrong, actually. It’s incredibly interesting and infinitely better to learn about soil than to shove our heads in the sand – pardon the pun – because here’s the deal: In 50 years, there will be no more fertile soil if we humans keep living the way we are today.

Uhhhh, any of you out there fond of eating? Like, to stay alive?

I thought so. And since soil is one of the most critical elements to human survival, maybe we should be thinking about it. Better yet, maybe we should actively work on caring for it. The good news is, we can.

Did you know that soil is a living resource, home to more than 25% of our planet’s biodiversity? Up to 90% of living organisms live or spend part of their lifecycle in soils, so it follows that it is important to maintain its health.

And here’s what really blew my mind—did you know that it takes about 500 years to form 1 cm of topsoil? 500 years! For one centimeter?!?! Meaning that we won’t be able to produce more soil within our lifetime.

What we see is all there is.

So, what can we do? Well, Terrabiom is using soil science, researching the biodiversity, and applying their knowledge in real-world ways. For farmers, gardeners, or any home-owner curious about what’s beneath them, Terrabiom samples the soil and discovers what’s in it. By creating a ‘soil map’ of the area, they can determine how best to improve it (i.e. plant tomatoes there and there, this type of vegetable over there, or perhaps trees are the best choice). Pretty cool, huh?! They also offer regular activities to learn about and engage in soil health fun. Yes, soil health FUN!

And for the Average Joe, every day offers an opportunity to:

  1. LEARN: understand what’s at stake, and what’s going on. Be curious and educate yourself about soil health.
  2. CARE: for any decision you take, consider microbes first! Take care of them since they take care of you.
  3. ACT: get active and create spaces and opportunities to let nature do her job. She holds the most effective solution for our greatest global challenges. Grow a plant, join a gardening group, or help your local nature conservation association. And the easiest of all actions: Join Terrabiom’s membership program to receive regular inspiration & action opportunities around soil health – coming early next year!

My fascination that nature can remedy itself remains strong—organisms in soil can break down certain contaminants. But my hope can be wobbly as it relies on humans allowing for her to do that (we don’t have the best track record of doing the right thing). Soil protection and conservation starts with us. Making sustainable food choices, properly recycling dangerous materials like batteries, composting at home to reduce the amount of waste that enters landfills, or managing antibiotic waste more responsibly, are just a few examples of how we can be part of the solution.

For more inspiration, knowledge and ways to get involved, check out these resources:

Article from Food and Agriculture Organization

Urban Agriculture Basel

Swiss Recycling

Composting at home with worms

Stadtgärtnerei (City of Basel helps you set up composting!)

While soil health is related to all the SDGs (no kidding!), Terrabiom contributes most directly to the following: 15, 12, 8, 13, 11, 3

by Carrie Aikman

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