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September 23, 2021

Soil: The incredible story of what keeps the earth, and us, healthy

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Matthew Evans: ‘We really haven’t been paying proper attention to soil.’

Sandra Haslam

Matthew Evans is a restauranteur, farmer, food activist and author, best known for his SBS series Gourmet Farmer. He is also one of the writers who was to feature at the Byron Writers’ Festival. While he is very disappointed that it couldn’t go ahead this year, fortunately we can still access his most recent, wonderful ideas via his latest book Soil. It is the story of how we have treated soil like dirt, when in reality it is an unsung hero that needs to be wholly understood and cherished.

Evans first became interested in how food is grown when he worked as a chef and food critic. He realised that it didn’t matter how much technique and fluff went into a fancy plate, it was the produce that played the vital role in flavour. This led him to grow his own food on a smallholding in Tasmania where, through passionate investigation, and some chance meetings with well qualified buffs, he discovered the vital importance of soil, and the intricacies of how good soil creates flavoursome, nutritious and sustainable food and food systems for the good of ourselves and the Earth. According to Evans, ‘We really haven’t been paying proper attention to soil’.

The book is a trove of well researched information presented in a straightforward, conversational tone with splashes of humour. He explores the increased recognition of the soil microbiome; the living bit of soil. Evans explains, ‘A shovelful of soil is more biodiverse than the entire Amazon rainforest’. He describes these micro-organisms, their importance in the transformation of nutrients to make them more available to plants, and how there is an incredible synergistic back-and-forth relationship between soil microbes and plants. 

There is also an account of branching filaments of certain fungi that actually break down rocks. He debunks some common practices such as aerating the soil by turning the soil over and ploughing; these actions are harmful to some of the important living elements in the soil, particularly the ones that are incredibly important for healthy soil structure and carbon storage.

As well as describing the amazing exchanges in the underground ecosystem that are facilitated by these living organisms, Evans reveals that there is an astounding role played by certain soil microbes in the creation of rain, snow and hail. It has even been shown that there is a soil microbe that boosts serotonin and norepinephrine in humans, causing antidepressant effects.

The book casts light on the latest research, fascinating data is explained and interesting experiments are recounted. One experiment Evans cites comes from an Italian trial, in which a panel of professional tasters identified increased flavour in wheat that was grown with a certain beneficial fungal strain. This outcome has been repeated for other produce in different investigations.

There are also some fun experiments outlined in Soil that you can do at home, including a quick, basic ‘Soil Composition Test in a Jar’, and another called the ‘Soil Your Undies’ test – to check how vibrant and biologically active your soil is.

The story of Soil moves from wonder to tragedy as Evans uncovers the peril of the ‘magic bit’, our topsoil. Evans explains how thin the topsoil really is, that it takes 1000 years to make one centimetre of topsoil, and that we have lost half of our topsoil since the onset of European farming practices in Australia. As well, he explains what happens when we use conventional (petrochemical) agricultural applications and how ‘we imperil an incredibly complex ecosystem that we’re only on the cusp of fully understanding, but upon which we all rely.’ We are not left in a tragedy however; he goes on to explain how we can rehabilitate the land and how healthy soil can be regenerated.

Evans shows links between soil, plants, diet and health. He discusses common deficiencies in soil and how those deficiencies are passed on to humans via food, as well as the hidden aspects in soil that really increase the nutrient density of plants and also increase the yield. The result, for human and soil health, of a lack of variety in modern produce is also a revelation. He outlines research that shows ‘if you eat 30 or more different plant products a week (and some of this can be as minor as a fresh herb in a dish), you’re less likely to have autoimmune disease than people who only eat ten a week’. So instead of the usual handful of fruit and vegetable varieties, Evans recommends that we should buy and grow a much more diverse range of produce.

The book is a wonderful saga of history, myth and truth, tragedy, humour and ultimately a heroic science-fact love story about the wonderful benevolence of Earth and her vibrant and vital life force – the soil. This is a great book for anyone who is interested in growing (on any scale), wellbeing, food flavour, sustainable wisdom and the amazing interconnectedness of life.

Soil : The incredible story of what keeps the earth, and us, healthy. By Matthew Evans (Murdoch Books)

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