GROW is bringing the Living Soil movement everywhere

Our strongest memories have to do with feelings, experiences, places, faces, objects… They evoke emotions that stay with us for a lifetime, occasionally coming alive in our every day lives in various simple ways. Through an appearance, a song, a sound we may hear, a smell, a taste or an image.

My family’s organic olive grove in Makri, Greece, is home to centuries-old trees.

I grew up inside a wonderful landscape in my village of Makri, located on the outskirts of Alexandroupoli in the north-eastern coast of Greece. My homeplace is home to one of the most ancient olive groves in the Mediterranean, with trees more than one thousand years old. Hence, my connection with food and the land are very strong and go back to my early childhood, binding me with those experiences, emotions and memories that I describe above. I still remember my grandfather taking me along to olive harvesting. I also remember my grandmother, Calypso, picking the olives by hand. I can still smell the scent of the freshly roasted almonds when she made the traditional halva to celebrate the “first olive oil” of each year.

Indigenous communities are custodians of traditional knowledge systems the are based on the protection of their soils and plant resources. In the photo: ethnobotanical fieldwork in the Garhwal Himalaya, India (2017).

Life has brought me to many places afar, studying and working as a biodiversity researcher and ethnobotanist in the evergreen mountain forests of the Indian Himalayan belt and northern Thailand and the rainforests of south-west China. My curiosity for the life around us unfolded into an inquiry into the evolutionary history of species and the landscapes hosting them. I lived with indigenous communities, who opened their homes to me and shared their knowledge on traditional uses of plants and immersed me into their own culture for something more than five years.

My journey with the living soil started in 2013, when I participated in the Summer of Soil in the Swedish countryside. With some of the most inspiring figures of the sustainable food movement in the speakers line-up, the event took place just one year after my return to Greece, where I took up the management of my family’s organic olive grove. Gathering a group of promising young people from all over Europe, it kicked-off the discussion about a Living Soil movement.

This occurred to me as a meeting point for my childhood memories with my -still fresh- cultural experience and fieldwork in the mountains of south-east Asia. I fondly remember the words of Vandana Shiva calling for a shift away from the extractive logic of destruction, to the circle of return, to gratitude to the Earth, our past and our ancestors. But also to our future, to our present oikos that needs our attention more than ever before. John D. Liu explained to me that the living soil depends on three key principles: enriching biodiversity; increasing biomass; and enhancing soil organic matter. My family’s olive grove was suddenly emerging in my mind as a ground for application of the science and values of agroecology and rural regeneration.

Hundreds of thousands of citizens becoming stewards of soil

Across the world, across Europe, soils are dying. Because they are cemented and they are poisoned by industrial agriculture. There is, unfortunately, a widespread worldview that has declared the Earth as dead matter and sees soil as inert. But this story is not about destruction. It is rather about what happens the other way around. It is about ecological agriculture, about returning carbon back to the soil, producing healthier food and inculcating life back to the soil.

This process follows a two-track trajectory, it is participatory, citizen-driven and takes place concurrently in both urban and rural areas.

On the one track are the hundreds of thousands of farmers and growers who are fed up with the environmental degradation, the erosion of biodiversity and the social breakdown that is evidently perpetuated by big industrial agriculture and fossil fuel based farming. The spotlight is on a very powerful shift realised by those young people who are returning to the land, combining their university degrees, fluency in foreign languages and the social connectivity that technology is offering today. Those bright minds -often too lonely- are repopulating rural areas, tediously breaking the ranks of old hierarchies and verticalities of unsustainable agriculture. By revitalising the soil they are revitalising landscapes, but also their local economies, possibly offering one of the very few ways out of unemployment. Take a look at what is happening in my country, Greece, and you will see what I mean.

On the other track are the eaters and consumers of urban areas becoming more aware and recognising their own responsibility. Reaching out to local farmers and community growers, they work together to make sure that the living soil has a more vibrant life. They are, hence, becoming co-producers and are rediscovering the power of the commons of food. In such a chain of events, good food and stewardship of the living soil become something much more potent than a biological need, shaping parts of a new social contract that eventually brings positive change and more health in our societies, our economies and our landscapes.

There are numerous stories out there, demonstrating how people are self-organising and self-governing to create a decentralised model of farming that lives with the Earth. They turn their attention to what lives inside the soil, and not on fossil fuels lying deep underneath, that should be kept on the ground. They respect and grow soil as a living milieu, recognising that healthy soils are really the solution to taking the carbon from the atmosphere -where its current levels are grimly high- and putting it back to the Earth, through one of nature’s most sophisticated, valuable yet cheapest processes: photosynthesis.

And there is a place for you too

It is now more and more understood that we humans need soil. In fact, we are nothing without living soil. But soil now needs humans more than ever, too. It needs living landscapes and living communities taking action.

The good thing about soil is that it can be found everywhere around us, even inside the most densely populated cities. There is no place that is too small to begin growing. A little pot in your balcony can be your first garden. Soil will be there in its full generosity, to let you discover a new relationship with it, while experimenting with a new pathway in your life. Smallness is not the problem — it is the beginning of the solution.

Exactly because soil is home to the web of life, it doesn’t matter where you start your journey with it. You are connected with it, and it is probably one of the most important connections in life that one needs to be aware of. What is needed, is to break the silos of isolation often occurring between all those agents of change -both individual and communities- scattered across Europe and the world.

Photo credits: Theophilos Gerontopoulos

We humans are like humus. We can live together with the soil. Once we become aware of this connection, then it is our passions, our minds and our hearts that will lead us to contribute our best. With open technologies available to us today, we have a great potential to connect all those who are curious about the living soil and do their best to raise awareness, share knowledge and advocate for its protection.

GROW aims to attract all these champions together, build community and new capacities through interaction and collaboration on the GROW Forum and a series of educational resources and citizen science experiments. In this way, GROW wants to ensure that there is no place where the movement for the living soil cannot sprout.