Visitors to the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum in Ottawa can now dig deep into soil science with a new exhibition, Soil Superheroes. Made possible through multiple partnerships across Canada, this interactive exhibition opened at the museum this July, where it will be displayed until summer 2022. Soil Superheroes will then spark conversations far and wide about soil stewardship as it embarks on a cross-Canada tour spanning multiple years. With a quirky approach to demystifying the science behind healthy, functioning soil, this timely exhibition points to the need for the public to join the scientific and agricultural communities in shouting out “We must save our soils!”
The calls to action have been growing louder. The United Nations declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils and the International Union of Soil Scientists prompted a wave of action on the public education front by extending attention through 2024 with the International Decade of Soils. Add to this the role that soil health plays in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and it becomes obvious why soil health can be considered a key issue of our time.
Many organizations around the world, including the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and its partners, have taken on the challenge of bringing soil to the forefront of conversations on sustainability and climate adaptation. The overarching message? Soil is fragile and we must all take action to protect it in order to face the current and future challenges of feeding the world with fewer resources, all while contending with a rapidly changing climate bringing about more extreme weather events. Along with water and air, soil is one of the most fundamental resources to our survival, yet it is finite and at risk of disappearing. The time is now to engage Canadians in these broader conversations.
Never has the non-farming population been more interested — and involved — in how their food is produced. In response, spectacular efforts have been exerted across the agricultural sphere to shed light on the sustainability of farming and the science behind best management practices, as well as the on-farm innovations and advances propelling agriculture towards better efficiency and productivity.
For the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, there is no better time to focus on soil — an undervalued yet hugely important natural resource.
In a survey of Canadians commissioned by the Ontario Science Centre in 2017, 89 per cent of respondents said they trusted museums and science centres as sources of information. With this advantage, museums are uniquely positioned to have balanced and factual conversations with people seeking to understand more beyond the polarized rhetoric making up a vast amount of the information found in social media and other online sources.
The exhibition takes an inclusive approach to soil education, striving to make a complex topic accessible and relevant to audiences who are far removed from farming and even from agricultural soil itself. Applying its expertise in creating highly accessible and engaging experiences, the museum chose to broach the topic in a personable way with a cast of charming cartoon characters such as Captain Clay, Wonder Worm, and Number 2 (a cow patty), who tell a story of interconnectedness and teamwork. This is a novel approach in soil education, one meant to reach visitors where they are and with a holistic twist, where chemical, physical and biological aspects of soil functioning are tied together and presented as clearly as possible. Visitors learn that only by working together can all the “soil superheroes” — the components making up soil — make life on Earth possible. How? By filtering and storing water, cycling elements through the Earth’s compartments, supporting habitats and growing our food and commodities. The exhibition even features some human soil superheroes — university and government research scientists whose findings have helped shift the paradigm on soil stewardship.
As urban centres expand over agricultural soils and fields are turned into neighbourhoods and parking lots, it is crucial that the public recognize the importance of preserving and protecting what arable land is left. There needs to be support for policies that will enable farmers to apply the newest soil science knowledge and technologies on their farms. And we need to connect consumers with the people who grow their food. In order to do this, we must first get people to care about something they may not have thought much about before — the ground beneath our feet. The museum hopes that by partnering in telling stories of contemporary agriculture, we can collectively get closer to these goals, and beyond.