Armidale, Australia – What can white cotton underwear tell you about the health of the soil on your farm or garden? A lot, it turns out.
Hundreds of people – from farmers to schoolchildren – bury their cotton underwear in their back gardens to dig up eight weeks later as part of a citizen science project called the Soil Your Undies Challenge that began in the United States before. to spread abroad and now meets momentum in Australia.
Cotton is made from a sugar called cellulose, which makes it a tasty snack for germs and the army of other tiny decomposers that live in the soil. The condition of the clothes when they are retrieved will indicate the health of the microbiome. If there isn’t much of the tissue left, the soil is healthy and full of activity. If it is practically intact, work is needed to improve the situation.
Oliver Knox, senior lecturer at the School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England (UNE) in New South Wales and CottonInfo, the Australian cotton industry joint extension program, are behind the The effort, which began in 2018 when Knox and Sally Dickinson, a regional extension worker for CottonInfo, asked 50 farmers if they would be willing to bury their underwear for science.
“Not only did they do it, but they were competing with each other, saying things like, ‘My soil is better than yours because I have more degraded pants,’ Knox said with a laugh. .
A healthy soil microbiome is the lifeblood of plants and can accelerate growth and even strengthen resistance to disease. Experts believe that it can also affect the nutritional content of our food.
Farmers whose submissions indicated poor soil health began to explore ways to regenerate their land, such as changing their crop rotation or leaving more stubble on the soil. “It got them all thinking about soil and we realized it was a beautiful and accessible way to make a soil assessment accessible to the public,” Knox said. “That’s what I like about the project.”
Since then, the Soil Your Undies campaign has spread among tight-knit farming communities and schools have joined in as well.
An estimated 400 people have since buried their underwear across the continent, allowing scientists to explore the health of soils in different parts of Australia, as well as collect data for further research. People are now showing up to submit their results on the CottonInfo map.
The Australian project also differs from the rest of the world in essential ways.
Elsewhere, people let the elastic waistband stick out of the floor like a marker, but on the first try Knox found the drawers had been stolen overnight.
Paw marks around the site of the mysterious disappearance led researchers to suspect the thief was a kangaroo so now – across Australia – they are burying the underwear to make sure it is completely protected from the curious fauna.
The microbiome under your feet
In neighboring New Zealand, Otago schools are also running their own Soil Your Undies campaigns.
“The students and their teachers are very excited to discover the world under their feet,” said Michelle Cox, coordinator of Soil Your Undies and soil science communicator at Al Jazeera. “But like the vast majority of people on the planet, they know very little about the soil and haven’t really thought about how it works and how important it is to our well-being and that of all life on our planet. “
Government-funded national citizen science program, it started as a pilot project with six schools in September 2020, while six more will be part of the project by next July. They hope to eventually roll it out nationwide.
Children report that most of the soils in which they buried underwear or collected worms had little life in the soil and very little clothing showed considerable degradation.
Cox is not surprised as many of the sample sites were in school grounds, which are often found in areas of mown grass with heavy foot traffic and therefore likely to be too dry, compacted, or devoid of organic matter essential to the soil microbiome.
On the other hand, the sites which gave very good results were either well mulched, near the composting areas or near various plantations. Notably, the team at the University of New England in Australia found that the soil microbiome can collapse in soil that has been exposed to droughts or floods, so climate change causes events. more extreme weather, our soil could also be affected.
By extracting additional data from their soil samples, students will be able to complete more pieces of the ‘soil puzzle’ and develop an in-depth understanding of soil health, how to create and maintain it, and even suggest ways. to avoid problems. happens in the first place.
“Many scientists agree that there is less than 60 years of topsoil left on our planet, less than 60 crops,” Cox said. “However, if we adopt practices that rebuild the microbiome of our soil and therefore the health, resilience and productivity of the soil, we can prevent this catastrophe.”
Lessons for the future
Back in Australia, Belinda Waldorf and her students at Armidale Waldorf School in northern New South Wales are among those reporting to Oliver Knox and the UNE team.
They buried a pair of underwear in the school garden and were happy to find the couple broke up eight weeks later.
Waldorf says the experience has fueled existing student activities, which include managing the school’s worm farm, composting school waste, and organic farming on-site.
“I think students are much more aware of how changes in the way we grow and grow food, even on a small scale, can have a significant impact on the environment,” she said.
One of the first questions kids wanted Knox to answer was why they were using underwear.
Scientists have long used something called the Shirley Test Fabric for soil burying – but that doesn’t have the PR appeal of underwear, and pure cotton isn’t always easy to find. . But a pair of polyester-cotton underwear, which tends to be 65% cotton, will likely remain intact after eight weeks. While cotton can be eaten away, Knox says what is left is often a fine mesh attached to a strong belt – the 35% of the product that is not cotton.
This got him thinking not only about the health of the soil, but also about the material choices people make and what ends up in landfills.
“Under the right conditions, we know cotton will decompose, but any raw material mixed with man-made fibers will not react the same and could stay in our environment for a very long time,” he said. “This is really something we should think about more.”