Daily Archives: September 23, 2017

Amid Tensions with North Korea, 51 Countries Sign Ban on Nuclear Weapons Despite U.S. Opposition

BBC Radio 3 – Free Thinking – Five things you always wanted to know about soil (but were too embarrassed to ask)

In a world where an increasingly small proportion of people work on the land, many of us don’t give soil a second thought. Yet it’s a hugely important substance that we humans – and pretty much every other species on the planet – simply couldn’t live without.

But don’t worry if you feel that you don’t know the first thing about it. As Free Thinking assembles a team of experts to tell Soil Stories Old and New, here’s a quick Q&A to help you get to know the ground beneath your feet.

What even is soil?

If you think of the earth as resembling an onion with a series of layers, the soil is the outermost of those layers. It’s the planet’s skin: scientists call it the pedosphere. Below it is the lithosphere (Earth’s rocky crust) and above it, only air (the atmosphere).

It’s said that a single tablespoon of soil contains more lifeforms than there are people on earth

The material itself is a mixture of minerals, organic matter, water and air. The exact ratios of each vary between soil types and locations, but in general about a quarter is water and another quarter air. The remaining half is made up of mineral content (i.e. pulverised rocks) and organic matter (i.e. decaying plants and animals, as well as billions of tiny organisms). The amount of each varies wildly according to the topography of the surrounding area.

If soil is full of rotting plants and animals, why doesn’t it smell?

Some soil does smell bad to humans. But a lot of the time, it can smell inoffensive, even good (think of that delightfully fresh “petrichor” scent you get immediately after rainfall). Part of the reason is can smell fresh-smelling is the large volumes of water that drain through it, removing many harmful organisms and toxins.

The presence of life in the soil also helps prevent it smelling like death. It’s said that a single tablespoon of soil can contain more lifeforms than there are people on earth. That’s millions upon millions of microbes, fungi, bacteria, fungi and bigger creatures (like worms) constantly moving through and processing it.

Can I eat it?

Some people think that soil *tastes* alright too – listen to the Free Thinking panel doing a taste test here. But you don’t need to have eaten soil to know when something tastes “earthy”. To some extent, you can taste soil in the plants that grow in it (and the products we make from them).

But the short answer, unsurprisingly, is no. The odd fleck on your veggies won’t do you any harm, but if you’re often faced with the urge to chow down on the stuff in your flowerbeds, you should probably pay a visit to your doctor – or at the very least, take a good look at your diet. Geophagia (the practice of eating earth or earth-like substances) can be a sign that your body is starved of essential minerals. It can also be a symptom of pica, an eating disorder where sufferers feel compelled to eat things that aren’t food.

Soil Stories Old and New

Free Thinking: Matthew Sweet talks soil with Andrew Scott & poet Elizabeth-Jane Burnett.

How do I make stuff grow in the soil I have?

A proper understanding of this subject requires years of detailed study of soil science (and several decades of listening to Gardeners’ Question Time over on Radio 4).

But basically speaking, people who want to grow plants should start thinking about the texture of the soil available to them, and how acid or alkaline it is.

Digging a hole in the ground is one of the best ways to spend an afternoon known to man

Most plants like a neutral or slightly acidic soil, while acidic soil is a natural home for plants like heathers, rhododendrons, azaleas, gardenias or holly. Alkaline soils are harder to grow things in, generally speaking, and gardeners spend a lot of time trying to lower their pH level with special fertilisers.

When it comes to texture, you’ll need to identify whether your soil is sandy or clay-based. Clay-based soil holds water well – so is super fertile – but it can also dry rock-hard, making it difficult to plant. Meanwhile, sandy soil is good at draining, but also sucks water away from plants. The best soil for growing things, generally speaking, is an even-textured variety called loam, which has a mixture of different sized particles.

How do people know what kind of soil they have?

Experienced gardeners will look at the plants already growing in an area then work backwards to identify the type of soil they’re working with. But newbies should visit the National Soil Resources Institute’s Soilscapes map, which provides detailed information about the natural soil in every part of the UK. You can search by postcode, by soil type or simply browse the map. Be warned, though – it’s surprisingly addictive.

If you’re feeling hands-on, then arm yourself with a trowel and get outdoors. Digging a hole in the ground is not only one of the best ways to spend an afternoon known to man, but will expose layers of colours and consistencies that give clues to the geological history of your area. Scientists use tools like colour charts to tell what kind of soil they’re dealing with – you can look these up online. And the Royal Horticultural Society website has a good guide for testing pH levels.

Bear in mind that if you live in a town or city, the soil in your garden is likely to have been brought in from another location. The best place to look for native soil is local woodland, which unlikely to have been interfered with or disturbed. Happy digging!

Matthew Sweet bring together a poet, environmental scientist, geologist and historians to discuss soil, culture and survival stories in Free Thinking. Listen on the Radio 3 website, via the iPlayer Radio app, or download the Arts and Ideas podcast.

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BBC Radio 4 – Shared Planet, Soil Science

Shared Planet

Mon 21 Oct 2013 21:00

Shared Planet explores the link between a growing human population and wildlife and there is no other part of the natural world that is under as much pressure as the earth’s soils. We rely on them to grow healthy crops, which they can only do if they support an appropriate community of bacterial, fungal and invertebrate life. Wildlife too depends on this diverse life that thrives in the soil, everything from birds to plants to insects. The earth worm is the surprising champion of soils and an animal that looks vulnerable in the face of human population pressure.

Producer Andrew Dawes.

See associated pictures for program:



National Geographic Greatest Landscapes: Stunning Photographs That Inspire and Astonish: National Geographic, George Steinmetz

From one majestic nature landscape to the next, this is an iconic collection of National Geographic’s photography of the world’s most beautiful locations that will immortalize the beauty of the great outdoors, showcasing evocative, and often unseen, images of extraordinary landscapes around the world.

With vast deserts in twilight, snowcapped mountain ranges at the brink of dawn, a forest in the height of autumn colors, these indelible images will magnify the beauty, emotion, and depth that can be captured in the split second of a camera flash, taking readers on a spectacular visual journey and offering an elegant conduit to the world around them. Paired with illuminating insights from celebrated photographers, this beautiful book weaves a vibrant tapestry of images that readers will turn to again and again.

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C. P. Chandrasekhar Speaks on ‘Revisiting ‘Capital’ in the Age of Finance’

US opioid crisis: 41 states to investigate big pharma’s ‘role’

BBC Radio 3 – Free Thinking, Soil Stories Old and New

Matthew Sweet talks to poet and writer Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, environmental scientist, Jules Pretty and geologist, Andrew Scott, and historians Matthew Kelly and Philip Coupland about Soil and Culture and Survival Stories
For some Soil is where they come from, for others it is an object of aesthetic beauty, for most of us it is the means by which we get what we need to live.Poet and writer Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s forthcoming A Dictionary of Soil explores the lives lived within and through the soil of three fields which constitute the origins of her family’s ancestral village.

Agroecology expert, Jules Pretty says Soil We Can Rebuild It and in an environmentally friendly way and it will continue to feed us.

Geologist Andrew Scott examines soils from deep time to discover what they can tell us about how the planet and life on Earth evolved.

Historian Matthew Kelly is interested in the cultural history of landscape and focuses on environmental policy in Britain after World War II and Philip Coupland is the biographer of Jorian Jenks, a man who might have been regarded as the father of the British Green Movement if he hadn’t joined Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

They join Matthew Sweet to think through our developing relationship with the life-giving dirt beneath our feet and discuss whether a happy ending just might be possible.

Presenter: Matthew Sweet

Guests: Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society, University of Essex author ‘The Earth Only Endures’ (2007) and ‘Agri-Culture’ (2002)

Andrew C. Scott, Emeritus Professor of Geology, Royal Holloway University of London author of ‘Fire on Earth: An Introduction’ (2014)

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, Newman University. Author of Swims (Pennned in the Margins, 2017)

Philip Coupland ‘Farming, Fascism and Ecology: A Life of Jorian Jenks’ 2016

Matthew Kelly, Professor of Modern History, Northumbria University ‘Quartz and Feldspar: Dartmoor A British Landscape in Modern Times’ 2015

Producer: Jacqueline Smith

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BBC Radio 4 – Costing the Earth, Soil Saviours

Costing the Earth

Can soil play a role in the fight against climate change? Our soils are the biggest store of terrestrial carbon on the planet. This crucial non-renewable natural resource is under threat, and millions of hectares of farmland are lost every year through erosion and degradation of topsoil, releasing significant quantities of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

The French Government believes that soil can play a significant part in keeping the rise in global average temperatures below 2 degrees. They’ve introduced an initiative called “4 per 1000”, which aims to improve the organic carbon matter in soil stocks by 4 parts in 1000 per year. They claim such an increase in soils around the world would be enough to offset all human emissions of greenhouse gases each year. Tom Heap talks to scientists and farmers to find out what can be done to put carbon back below our feet.

Producer: Sophie Anton.

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