Take 10 with... Emma Sharp and Melanie Kah

Dr Emma Sharp and Dr Melanie Kah from the School of Environment have developed the Soilsafe Aotearoa programme to build a better appreciation of why we should care for and about soil.

Dr Emma Sharp and Dr Melanie Kah from the School of Environment launched the Soilsafe Aotearoa programme in early 2021.

1. Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

Soilsafe Aotearoa is a transdisciplinary community science programme about domestic soil.

2. Now describe it in everyday terms!

We launched Soilsafe Aotearoa in early 2021 to focus on the quality of garden soil. Our approach is transdisciplinary in the way that it recognises that soil needs to be understood and acknowledged for its scientific, cultural, economic, political, physical, social and environmental values. Soilsafe Aotearoa is based on citizen-science: we invite members of the public to get involved and send us soil samples from their garden that we test for metal contaminants, like lead, so that the public knows what is in their soil. We have already received more than 1500 samples from 340 homes.

We do not only consider the classic metrics associated with scientific soil quality (for example concentrations of contaminants), but also social values, and we embed our work with educative activities, with a range of actors co-designing projects with us. Soilsafe has spun off new initiatives already including Soilsafe Kids to support our soil values engagement with schools.

3. Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

  • Supervising a team of FABULOUS postgraduate students to work on various aspects of soil research, engagement and teaching.
  • Communicating about the programme and our findings with the scientific community (scientific articles, conference presentations) and the public (popular press, radio interviews).
  • Engaging with our community scientists, answering their questions and liaising with our partners at GNS Science who test the soil samples for metal contamination.
  • Planning and running events including soil science sessions at schools, community art exhibits and presenting at festivals.

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

Working with such a diversity of expertise, knowledge, and fun and interesting people.

5. Tell us something that has surprised or amused you in the course of your research.

When Soilsafe was unexpectedly referred to on the Sunday (TVNZ) show the lab was inundated with soil samples from all around the country, which made for hard mahi for our lab team! We got there and were certainly grateful for the advertising (after a holiday)!

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

Strong, and trusted relationships are important in this kind of work. It took us one year of preparation to launch the programme and we are continuously building and maintaining our connections with groups and organisations interested in this space, for example community gardens and māra kai, Council and industry.

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

Currently, very little is known about the quality, or health, of domestic garden soil. The data we are collecting opens up many questions that are specific to our communities in Aotearoa. For instance, when metal contamination is detected, we wonder what the source(s) may be, or whether the metals can be uptaken by home-grown vegetables (especially those of specific relevance to Aotearoa, like kumara, kamokamo, or, puha, for which no data is available in the literature).

Results from our soil values questionnaires also raise questions related to the distributions of environmental contamination, such as whether some communities are more exposed to contamination than others, or how gardening behaviour may change over time and circumstance, for example due to Covid-19 lockdowns.

8. What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

The soil testing programme allows the collection of valuable data on the quality of domestic soil across Aotearoa. This is the starting point for changes in individual behaviour, for example, measures to reduce exposure to contaminated soil, as well as policy, such as adapting health guideline values.

More broadly, we aim at building a better appreciation of the value of soil and why we should care for and about it. Typically in Aotearoa we are concerned about soil for its use for food production or land development. We’d like to open up this understanding to think less about what soil can do for us and more about what we can do for it, especially given its progressively degraded, depleted and neglected state. In this vein, we hope that our Soilsafe Kids programme will positively change kids’ understanding of soil, and positively influence their perceived value in it.

9. If you collaborate across the faculty or University, or even outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

Soilsafe Aotearoa has strong links to Macquarie University Sydney and GNS Science Dunedin, and our journey started with fruitful conversations with Cate Macinnis-Ng (Biological Sciences) and Dan Hikuroa (Māori Studies). Our research network is expanding quickly within the University and beyond as more interesting and diverse research questions emerge. Our spinoff project Soilsafe Kids has led us to collaborate with child and community nutrition engagement lead Victoria Egli (FMHS) as well as multiple community organisations (Garden to Table, Oke), multiple schools across Auckland, and community and indigenous artists (Ekarasa Doblanovic who works with soil pigments and on 'soil installations'; Shona Dey, a photographer; and Nicole Johnson, who works in watercolours).

As we mentioned, we also collaborate with citizen-scientists! We invite anyone who has a bit of soil around their home - whether it is a small patch of lawn or a lush vegetable garden - to send in their soil to be tested free of charge. To find out how you can take part, go to Soilsafe Aotearoa.

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research selves?

Continue to ask yourself “who/what is this work serving?”.