Creatives and inventives are sometimes characterised as dreamers. Their shared trait is their concern with the edges of experience, not the nitty gritty of reality. But Gregor Mendel was interested in peas, Isaac Newton favoured apples and Charles Darwin was a big fan of worms.
Perhaps the real defining feature of a creative inventive is the ability to see something extraordinary in what most of us consider to be the utterly mundane. Like soil.
Readers will already have experienced a tingle of disapproval, as if they feel they are being led up the garden path to a very uninteresting part of outdoor experience – the compost heap. The word itself – ‘soil’ - has unpleasant connotations, which we don’t need to go into right now. It even sounds messy, the word’s texture makes the skin feel tacky and the nails dirty. What could this ubiquitous, inconvenient stuff have to do with inventions?
The truth is – everything.
The International Year of Soils
Soil sustains life on earth. By 2050, a total of 9 billion human lives, not to mention all the others that creep, pounce and flap around the earth, will depend on it. Soil is an incredibly complex living thing. In one teaspoon of soil there are between anything up to 1bn bacteria, thousands of protozoa and 100s of nematodes. It takes anything up to 500 years for a real decent lump of soil to develop.
The dirt is dished
The problem is dirt is changing and so is the way we understand it. Globally, nutrient levels are falling. Leeching and erosion is adversely effecting previously productive land. Plus climate change is blowing or washing away huge swathes of irreplaceable soil. And soil stress isn’t someone else’s problem. British earth is just as vulnerable as anyone else’s.
Here in the UK researchers from Sheffield University suggest that we only have 100 harvests left before our denuded soils give out.
Not only does soil support our agriculture, its complex biology and biochemistry is increasingly important to bio-industries.
The relationship between soil and ground breaking science has always been well understood. Streptomycin is a soil product for which Selman Waksman received the Nobel prize in 1952. Boston University recently announced further success in its drive to develop new antibiotics based on soil cultivation.
The Food and Agriculture of the United Nations has declared this year International Year of Soils in response to a perceived danger. It’s considerably easier to convince the public of the catastrophic effects, say, a new pandemic than the idea that because soil is getting less dirty we’re in trouble. But that’s exactly the UN’s message – in the developed and the developing worlds – soil is losing its oomph, it’s dying. This year is about raising awareness and educating the public about the importance of soil and its sustainability. It’s about real, productive interventions – to save the soil on the ground.
Rather worryingly, the number of organic producers of soil is in decline. Statistics from DEFRA confirm that in 2011-12 the number of organic producers in the UK fell by 6% for the fifth consecutive year. According to the latest numbers there are just 6,072 organic producers in the UK. A crisis is looming and, as ever, from the point of view of the creative inventive, a problem is just a solution in disguise.
Soil is the new oil.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the creative potential of soil offers is to consider ways of making it. Earthworms are they key and across Europe even they are threatened. Sustainable growers in the UK have been making use of the humble worm’s capacity to digest and render usable almost anything cultivatable since the early 1980s. The aptly named ‘Original Organics’ based in Cullompton in Devon registered the word ‘Wormery’ as a trade mark in the early 1990s. Under the guidance of its managing director and inventor Clive Roberts patented its worm-based earth makers. Today the business is thriving and Roberts sees a healthy future for innovators with vision who don’t mind getting their hands dirty in the race to save our soil.