#IHateSoilTaxonomy — a soil newsletter no. 1

This is the first — and possibly only — issue of a newsletter designed to cover unreported issues in soil science. Because y’know, someone’s got to.

Feedback anything you want to here or on twitter.

So the big soil news today ought to be coming from the EGU, where 16,000 abstracts are being offered by 13,000 geoscientists at their meeting in Vienna. As the event has been growing to be one of the biggest regular Soil Science meetings on the calendar, there are a lot of soil people there.

screenshot from EGU2016 website

The problem is that they’re not actually livestreaming any of the soil part of the conference and none of the press conferences are about soil. Great work team. Maybe someone will tell me about the good stuff joe@f-m.fm

So instead I’ve been checking out another mostly unreported event, at the FAO in Rome. If you’ve been playing along, you’ll know that 2014 was the FAO’s International Year of Family Farming and 2015 was the International Year of Soil. And now we’re into 2016 and like someone waking up after a great party, you might be wondering what happened and what’s going on next.

Well, wait for it, don’t yawn at the back… it is… drumroll… Pulses.

2016 is the FAO International Year of Pulses. Yeah, however you say it, it still sounds like a let-down from the excitement of the International Year of Soil. A step up from the International Year of Cockroaches, perhaps, but the FAO clearly has taken a shot wide of an open goal, you might be thinking.

If that’s you, shame on you for thinking such nonsense.

In fact, in launching the IYP at FAO HQ today, Marcela Villarreal, the FAO’s person-in-charge of the International Years (who has a long official title) made a pretty good job of linking pulses to the soil. In fact she said that there was a symbiosis between pulses and soil.

Screenshot from the FAO stream of the event today

UN events can be hard to watch, what with all the Diplomats and VIPs making speeches without saying anything and thanking each other for being there. But this one was actually really surprisingly informative.

A few highlights for those who don’t have 3 hours spare to watch the whole meeting.

Ren Wang (who has another long job title at the FAO) set exactly the right tone for the meeting when he said that soil is the absolute foundation for everything when looking to the FAO vision of eradicating hunger, eliminating poverty and promoting sustainable development. It was enough to warm the heart of the most hardened soil scientist.

Over a dodgy skype line from Morocco, ICARDA Director General Mahmoud Solh spoke from their Pulse Conference and underlined the importance of pulses to protect soil health. Not only are pulses a better source of low-fat protein, even compared to cereals like wheat and rice (and let’s not even get into comparing them with meat), not only are they high in fibre and a good source of carbohydrates, not only have lentils been shown to help supply iron to anaemic children. Those things are all great, but even better than that, pulses offer physical, chemical and biological benefits to the soil too.

Physically they can change the soil structure, promoting aeration with their strong roots. Chemically the fixation of nitrogen in legumes can help with the soil nutrient balance of following crops, tackle salinity, acidity and other problems. Biologically they can stimulate and encourage the soil microbes and encourage good soil health.

Given that they also provide the equivalent of 47 million tonnes of N fertiliser which does not need to be produced, it appears to be a win-win-win-win.

Eduardo Mansur, the (improbably short titled) Director of Land and Water at the FAO batted from the other end with some more impressive strokes. Pulses are also often good in terms of water use. 1 kg of lentil daal takes 50 litres of water to produce, 1 kg of chicken (presumably it was a chicken korma to make sure it was a like-for-like comparison) uses 4,325 litres. And a beef curry was so high that he didn’t even want to mention it.

Providing an candidate for interesting academic paper of the day, Paola De Santis from Biodiversity International talked about the work of this CGAIR institute looking at the genetic diversity of pulses in several different parts of the world and their consequent abilities to fight off disease and pathogens. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that the best scenarios in terms of food security require the use of a wide variety of different cultivars and varieties as each have their own strengths and weaknesses.

It was said several times by different people that tackling the future challenges of food security will require an increase in the growth and consumption of pulse protein rather than meat, and in turn that will require an increase in the research and development of pulse crops, which at the moment tend to be rather ignored compared to the big cereal crops.

Which makes one rather wonder why, if they’re so great and everything, more focus hasn’t been put on this kind of crop husbandry before.

Anyway, I suppose strictly speaking the issues of food security and genetics are not soil science, but I really like the way that the FAO goes into these things with all guns blazing and makes the point that no, we can’t just talk amongst ourselves and like-it-or-not solving the problem is always going to be a mixture of soils and plant breeding — but also sociology, economics, policy and politics. Which amounts to rather more than a boring pile of beans.

I really hope that the IYP continues in the way it has begun and that the soil science community really gets stuck in with it, as they did with the IYS last year.

Finally, I’m playing a game of Where’s Wally with UK Champion for Global Food Security, Professor of Population Ecology and general Good Egg Tim Benton.

So. Where is Tim Benton?

Answer — he is presenting at the Institute of Food Science and Technology Spring Conference at the National Motorbike Museum near Birmingham.

Which, I think you’ll find, is an inspiring choice for a venue.

Thanks for reading.