"Soil Health and its Maladies: Field Notes with Farmers in the Global South"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
17 February 2016
Rapporteur Report by Vivian Underhill
In an integrated, back-and-forth conversation, Lyons and Davis discussed soil, health, and their relationships with ecosystem and human dynamics. A product of their ongoing conversations since 2008, their interdisciplinary approach shifted from the micron-scale to global climate regulation, crossing and complicating scales of thinking, and showed the co-transformation of each other’s work through that long collaboration. Beginning with how they each know soil from their respective intellectual backgrounds and engagements with academia and farmers, they asked: what is soil? Then, what is health? And what do we mean by soil health, especially in regard to dominant perceptions that link soil with industrial agriculture? Scow, whose work focuses on soil microbial communities and their role in providing ecosystem services, provided her definition of soil as a “natural body of solids (mineral and organic), liquid, and gas that occurs on the land surface, occupies space, and is characterized by distinguishable horizons or layers, which are the function of additions, losses, transfers, and transformations of energy and matter.” Yet soil also includes the entanglement of life within its mineral/organic matter matrix, including a tremendous diversity of microbes, insects, fungi, animals, plants. As such, soil calls into question divisions between species and between living organisms and nonliving matter.
Lyons then discussed her engagement with Colombian scientists’ sampling and sampleprocessing practices, and the processes of alienation that occur through the act of sampling and processing soil – from removing it from the ground, removing its water content, sieving for individual size fractions, to burning off organic matter. In this way, the soil sample becomes only a representation of the original soil, produced through its engagements with the scientists, and loses its original complex relationality with the soils and ecosystem around it. Scow agreed, noting also the immense heterogeneity of microenvironments within a single soil. Referring to influential soil scientist Hans Jenny’s assertion that soil is a living system, she asked provocatively: “Is soil alive, because it takes in oxygen and breathes out carbon dioxide? Or is it just a place where living things live?”
Dr. Lyons then discussed soil’s relation to colonial histories, the emergence and development of
capitalism, and the Green Revolution, and how even soil science is deeply immersed in histories
and logics of colonialism. For instance, in the export of guano (a fertilizer high in nitrogen,
phosphate, and potassium derived from sea bird and bat excrement) from Peru to exhausted
European soils, we see a literal extraction of land from a colony to empire. She discussed how, in
Colombia, militarized growth-oriented development, the Colombian War on Drugs, and USAID
crop-substitution plans often circle around the soil, but do not often take up soil explicitly in that
discussion. Because of these geopolitical dynamics, soil becomes a matter of economic concern,
often tethered to a specific kind of agriculture that is more akin to soil mining than agriculture
per se. She also discussed how these tactics force farmers into specific relationships with soil that
mimic those of the Green Revolution and industrialized agriculture, severing the complex
dynamics of growth and decay that sustain small farmers’ relationships with the ecosystems and
soils with which they work and live. Kristina argued to bring the integrality back to the fore in
the way we understand soil.
Scow then discussed the ‘rocky history’ of the term ‘soil health,’ and its emergence as a term
within scientific and resource-management communities. Though embraced by the NRCS
(National Resource Conservation Service), there has been significant debate about what it means.
It may present an opportunity to return to a conception of soils as living beings themselves, with
their own requirements for health and well-being, yet what does this look like when implemented
on large scales? Scow explained that soil scientists currently measure a range of physical,
chemical, and biological parameters meant to indicate soil health, and asked: what is the
benchmark condition against which these parameters are measured to determine their relative
health? Further, in basing soil health on discrete measurements, what interrelations are lost?
What can’t be captured in these human-centered ways of studying and categorizing soils?
Lyons explained that for the small farmers with whom she worked in Colombia, there is no
stable entity called soil. Rather, they argue for selva-based farming, in which relationalities
between humans, plants, and soil are retained and nurtured, as an alternative to state-based
militarized agriculture or extractive industries. From here, they struggle to rebuild local food
autonomy and livelihoods and are engaged in struggle against USDA taxonomic standards that
label these soils as “poor,” leading state-based economic growth initiatives to plan for extractive
industry in the region.
These examples bring to the fore a range of questions about soil health, and what we mean by
that term. What is health, and health for whom? What do militarized and economized models of
health do to modes of living well and living well together? What gets taken up and what gets
occluded when we think about health as a paradigm to think and live with? What alternative
ways of living well and dying together might create a more capacious sense of health?
Donna Haraway (Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness, UCSC) pointed
out the importance of thinking first about access to soil and land in conversations about humansoil
relationships and their degradation or health. She also suggested the possibilities that come
with thinking about healing, as an active process in relation to the soil, as opposed to the more
static ‘health.” Lyons responded that the immediate struggle is always to remain in place, not to
be displaced. As farmers transform their land and their farms, different possible worlds are at
stake as they resist the capitalization of farming. This process in itself is an immensely healing or
transformative process, but access to the soil in the first place is always necessary to then engage
in that healing process.
Birgit Müller (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research) added her experience with
attitudes about soil health in regard to Canadian biotech farming, in which a discourse of caring
goes hand in hand with large-scale industrialized farming and widespread pesticide use. This
entanglement of harm and care applied directly to the discussion of the definition of “health:” is
health related to high crop yields, or to the actual wellness and function of the soil itself? Lyons
pointed out the ways in which discourses of “health” is often used to mobilize logics that support
the continuation of harmful practices.
Gillian (last name and affiliation unknown) pointed out the complicated biopolitics of thinking
through the heterogeneity of the soil matrix itself. For instance, pathogens, viruses, and
destructive species are also part of the soil’s complex relations. Should these pathogens also be
counted as part of the life that should be nourished, and how does thinking about life as not
always harmonious complicate our notions of health and human/soil relationships? Lyons
responded that this point brings up the questions of living and dying well, and the role of
decomposition in that cycle. She said that defining weeds and pests is a constant negotiation:
what needs to die in order for what else to live? But with the farmers she works with in
Colombia, there’s a sense of dying differently, in order to live differently: with dignity, in place,
unseparated, still in complex relations with the rest of the system around you. This mobilizes a
different scheme of biopolitics and necropolitics than what we usually think with.
Carol Shennan (UCSC, Environmental Studies) pointed out the problem of separating out the
soil in the term ‘soil health.’ There’s a difference between soil health and ecosystem or habitat
health, but they are intricately linked to each other and can’t easily be separated. Further, who
decided the kinds of benchmarks to be used for soil health? Scow argued for a more localized
and nuanced process of deciding health, rather than broad taxonomies. She pointed out that terms
like sustainability and soil health are not valuable in their actual scoring potential, but rather
because they catalyze thought and discussion about what they might mean.
This led to a conversation about the role of funding in the use or disuse of terms like soil health,
and their definitions. For instance, if the USDA has funding for scientific work, then projects
will be built around USDA terminology. Scow pointed out that broadly speaking, public policy
has largely not been directed toward soil until recently with AB 32 (a California bill to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions from all sources across the state) and growing interest in the role of
soil in carbon sequestration. Lyons explained that in Colombia, soils are not part of
environmental legislation. They appear partially in legislation on forests, water, etc, but not on
their own. In public policy, they only have some form of value because of their relations with
other aspects of their ecosystems, which brings up a range of ontological questions for soil
scientists and farmers: how can soil, a distinctly relational entity, and soil scientists, hold
political leverage on its own?
The Roots of Your Health: Elaine Ingham on the Science of Soil by Lynda Brown
Soil and Human Security in the 21st Century by Ronald Amundson, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Jan
W. Hopmans, Carolyn Olson, A. Ester Sztein, Donald L. Sparks