A nation that rebuilds its soils rebuilds itself

13 November 2023 18:30 - 19:30 The Royal Society Free Watch online

The Rosalind Franklin Award and Lecture 2023 presented by Professor Karen Johnson titled 'A nation that rebuilds its soils rebuilds itself: the role of women'.

The Royal Society welcomed Professor Karen Johnson, expert in the field of soil science and winner of Rosalind Franklin Award and Lecture 2023. Professor Johnson brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in understanding the intricacies of soil and the role women have in caring for our soil and planet.  

Professor Johnson shared an insight into her presentation below:

Roosevelt said "A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself". He was referring to the American Midwest during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but also unknowingly foreshadowing what lay ahead: our present.

In the EU, two-thirds of soils are now degraded, while one-third of worldwide soil experiences the issue of degradation. Soil is the biggest store of organic carbon after fossil fuels. By degrading it over the last 70 years through industrialised agriculture, we have ended up in a vicious cycle of climate change causing fire, floods and droughts. These events exacerbate soil degradation and cause more climate change. 

Soils are not glamorous but they do underpin all terrestrial life. They don't just feed us, they store water and they store carbon. Soil degradation has happened because we have been treating soil as inanimate. Soil is living. Just like us, soil needs energy and materials to stay alive. But we are killing it. And unless we do things differently and start to care for soil as a living material, we will destroy nations, because we will have food shortages, we will have more floods, more droughts and fire, and we will have more inequality. 

Using "waste" materials rich in the carbon and minerals (apostrophes because these materials are not waste to living soil) we can provide the soil microbiome with what it is missing so it can thrive. By working with the soil microbiome and by feeding our soils we can produce healthier plants, healthier animals and have a healthier planet. The role of caring is one that is largely assigned to women but there is a growing consensus that a caring approach can result in environmental, economic and social benefits for all. Working with the soil microbiome to rebuild our soils will help us to deliver net zero, net biodiversity gain, and to improve both human and planetary health.

The Award

The Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award and Lecture is awarded to an individual for an outstanding contribution to any area of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and to support the promotion of women in STEM. The award is supported by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and is named in honour of the biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, who made critical contributions to the understanding of the fine molecular structures of DNA. The first award was made in 2003. The lectureship is accompanied by a medal of silver gilt, a grant of £40,000 and a gift of £1,000. The recipient of the award is expected to spend a proportion of the grant on implementing a project to raise the profile of women in STEM. 

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