Global Soil Week: Young people and the future of soil

Global Soil Week: Young people and the future of soil

By Hannah Steenbergen

30 April, 2015

Global Soil Week (GSW) is now in its third year, providing an international platform for bridging scientific research and political action with sustainable soil management and responsible land governance. The number of participants at GSW, as well as the diversity of backgrounds, has increased considerably year on year, adding to the pertinence and magnitude of the event.

This year, coinciding with the UN International Year of Soils, numbers exploded with well over 500 participants, representing 80 different countries, gathering in Berlin last week and proving the worldwide concern for soil issues. Global Soil Week strives for a participatory multi-stakeholder process including high-level policy makers, scientists, NGOs, farmers, artists and the private sector. Among the audience of usual suspects – experts and decisions makers – were a handful of young faces, passionate about soil and eager to be involved.

Young people represent 1.5 billion of the global population and some of them are slowly waking up to the fact that they will live to see the days when soil degradation, contamination and food insecurity will start taking serious effect. As Dr Ursula Schäfer-Preuss from Global Water Partnership pointed out in her plenary speech:

“We need to get youth involved because what we are doing is for them.”

In 2012 only five young people attended the first GSW, and in the final plenary session a courageous voice stood up and challenged the situation, pointing out that while the discussion focused on the state of soil in 2050 most of the attending audience would no longer be alive by then and therefore young people must be included. This point was taken up by the GSW organisers, who in 2013 invited Pieter Ploeg, a young social entrepreneur to speak. This year GSW went further to include a Young Professionals Programme, which I attended along with 22 others from 13 different countries representing five continents. The Young Professionals Programme aimed to connect young scientists and practitioners with senior experts in all soil-related fields and was organised by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in cooperation with the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, all in Germany, and the network World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies in the Netherlands.

Two days before GSW, the young professionals started getting to know each other’s diverse backgrounds, which included soil scientists, social scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, NGO workers and practitioners in farming and land management. We visited two unique projects in Berlin where innovative and experimental land management is practiced. At the 2000m² project we saw what it means to grow enough food for one person for a year on 2,000 metres squared – the total area of arable land divided by the world’s population. We went on to visit Prinzessinnen Garten, where co-founder Robert Shaw told us about reviving severely depleted and contaminated soils in an area of urban dereliction by using compost and wood chips.

During the soil conference the Young Professionals had lunchtime discussions with expert mentors, group reflection discussions and an intergenerational open space session. Unfortunately, the open space session did not turn out to be as intergenerational as hoped, as very few of the older generation attended. Those who did attend commented that it was one of the most interesting parts of GSW. The session included roundtable discussions on how to recognise sustainable land management (integrating different knowledge sources such as that of scientists, farmers or indigenous peoples), how to inspire people to love soil and reflections on key issues and insights raised at GSW.

Finally, we presented to each other our projects for developing soil issues in our local contexts. As part of the application process to the programme, we had to develop ideas extending outreach by organising public events in our respective localities. These exciting ideas ranged from a Soapbox Science edition about soil issues, to an ambitious plan to grow and disseminate 10,000 tree seedlings in Kenya, to the Common Soil international learning centre for regenerative agriculture, land restoration and regional food systems.

The first Young Professionals Programme at this year’s GSW proved to be a success and goes to show that there is a younger generation of creative, resourceful and enthusiastic agents of change who are ready to do what it takes to address soil issues. Although sometimes lost in trying to navigate the ambiguity of political and scientific terminology and the plethora of acronyms wielded at the conference, there was urgency and optimistic energy among the youth at GSW. They are fully aware that without serious commitments and action at all levels, the decline of life-sustaining soils will have dire consequences. The official inclusion of young people at GSW is a strong sign that the position of young people is being taken seriously by international decision makers. Yet it is hoped that such a programme will not simply appease the youth voice, but will give rise to real inclusive processes and lead to even more youth participation at next year’s event.

Christian Schneider, Young Professionals Programme organiser, commented that:

“Insight into Global Soil Week will help us young professionals to link our work to relevant global trends in science and with regional and global political agendas.” He further added that, “We are also able to identify what is missing and ambiguous in the highly specialised political and scientific debates, from a young professional’s perspective.”

I sincerely hope that the key aims of Global Soil Week will be met as a result of the conference and the ongoing processes “to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are developed in a way that empowers and supports countries to address the issue of soil and land degradation for sustainable development.”

While the politicians are busy discussing how to do this, it is vital that young people become even busier in engaging with soil issues and creating change on the ground. It is estimated that at the current rate of degradation, we only have enough soil left globally to provide food for another 60 years, yet there may still be hope if the younger generation become active stewards of the soil.

What can you do, whatever your age, to engage in soil issues?

  • Talk about soil – not many people casually chat about soil in daily life, but starting a conversation about how life depends on soil could inspire and spark new interest in the topic, and you could learn something new.
  • Find out more about soil – get started with this article and this video and then have a look at the Soil Atlas.
  • Eat from healthy soil – find out where your food comes from and whether it was produced using sustainable farming practices. Start by checking out these tips on the SFT website.
  • Get your hands in the soil – find ways to get to know soil practically – start gardening, even if it’s just a pot plant in your windowsill. Or why not start a compost heap?
  • Farm for the soil – farmers are the ultimate soil stewards and have the potential to maintain and enhance soil fertility. Their management practices can feed soil biology by cycling nutrients, rotating crops and using compost.
  • Careers for the soil – there are many careers in which you can work to improve the soil situation: you could be a soil scientist, farmer, journalist, politician, campaigner, chef, artist or researcher, to name just a few.

Click here to watch the final plenary of the Global Soil Week discussing the way forward.

Photographs: Hanspeter Liniger