Soil Remineralization Shapes Yields and Elevates Food Nutrition: An Interview with Philipp Swoboda
Philipp Swoboda grew up with a forest bordering his family’s hillside home in Austria, which he believes contributed greatly to his early love of nature. Throughout his upbringing, being in and around nature was essentially the norm. Although he lived on the outskirts of an urban area, Philipp recalls his passion for exploring the forest and seeing wildlife in its natural habitat.
Fast forward a couple decades and Philipp’s passion for nature continued with his obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree in environmental system science, course-heavy in geography, and then earning a Master’s Degree in sustainable development — an international program providing the opportunity to live, study and research in Austria, the Netherlands, and South Africa.
Currently enrolled at the Center for Development Research (ZEF, Bonn), Philipp researches sustainable agriculture, geochemistry, rock weathering, soil science and amelioration, as well as alternative fertilizers.
His findings: viewing nutrient uptake and soil health within a ‘One Health’ context, which considers the overall human-animal-environment nexus, provides a more comprehensive platform for growing food than just looking at a single facet.As everything is interconnected, Philipp believes soil health is instrumental to the nutritional density of foods and crop yields. While some soils contain all the mineral elements needed to support growth and development of biodiversity, many do not.
With this understanding and a desire to learn more about valuable, sustainable methods of soil remineralization, Philipp has pursued on-the-ground research in various growing regions around the world.
“My practical research part was initially about a rock dust project for India with mica-containing rocks,” he said. “But after the visit of Ahmedabad in 2018 and a stakeholder workshop, it turned out that it was not feasible to conduct the practical research part since the envisioned cooperation with necessary stakeholders did not work out.”
Undeterred, Philipp reframed his practical research to collaborate with German and Austrian farmers and researchers. He discovered that farmers in southern Germany and Austria have used rock dust in a mix with slurry (animal manure) for more than 20 years.
He learned that farmers in Germany’s Allgäu region reported notable mixture effects — namely a reduced odor with potentially-reduced ammonia emissions, as well as improved slurry conditions. This was all on top of improved soil, plant, and animal health.
“After several discussions with the Landtechnik Bonn and practitioners, it turned out that the potential ammonia (NH3) emission reduction of rock dust-amended slurry is of most interest from a scientific, practical and environmental-political perspective,” Philipp said, adding that NH3 emissions are a major problem with intensive livestock farming worldwide, both in terms of greenhouse gasses and loss of crucial nitrogen in soils.
“Thus, it was decided to establish a slurry [plus] rock-dust emission trial under controlled conditions. The experiment is currently in the final planning phase.”
Now halfway through his PhD, Philipp remains dedicated to his research, strengthening his relationships with scientists and farmers worldwide.
He also recently returned from a two-week trip to Guatemala. Philipp takes time to travel, as he explores and continues the lifelong love of nature that has defined him since childhood.
Interview with Philipp Swoboda
Q: What do your agricultural experiences in other countries look like, and what do they suggest for the future of sustainability?
A: I got to know farmers in Austria, Netherlands, Germany, South Africa, and Guatemala. It’s a very mixed picture. Combined efforts from all sides is needed. No single organic or genetic or small-scale or big-scale precision agriculture wave will be capable of solving future issues of sustainability alone — they all have to work together. I’m also not the biggest fan of this whole division between organic, conventional, et cetera … since in my practical experience the transition of those labelled farms is often fluid and I’ve seen conventional farms in Austria that are more sound than organic ones, and vice versa, of course. At any case, the pivotal importance of soil recognized by organic agriculture has to be recognized by agriculturists in general.
Q: What is your long-term vision for your work?
A: Advance the understanding and usage of rock dusts and also soil science in general. Set up more comprehensive, multi-year projects and advance cooperation with the mining industry. Accumulate and gather information also from a non-scientific side.
One more concrete vision is to work out and contribute to the best combination of rock dust with organic materials like compost, manure and slurry, since there is quite some potential for nutrient conservation, emission reduction and bio-weathering with those rock-organic mixtures — and the practical application infrastructure could remain the same.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish?
A: To one day become an expert in the rock dust field and a bridge-builder between science and the practice. Also, I want to contribute to the advancement of ‘One Health,’ meaning the health of the overall human-animal-environment nexus. It’s still a fuzzy concept, but I think that it will become more important in the coming years.
Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?
A: Hopefully having finished my PhD — ha! I can see being involved in a great research team that works together with farmers.
Q: How does your academic work influence your personal attempts at sustainable living?
A: It definitely influences it, but the academic work also reminds me to consider the objective scale of impact of my everyday tasks, meaning that having no car or not flying too often definitely has a bigger impact than swapping Starbucks triple caramel latte for biodynamic cookies and that sort of over-projected moral food gratification.
Q: Do you garden?
A: Yeah, but currently ‘only’ on our balcony.
Q: What’s your favorite vegetable, fruit?
A: Currently fennel, but I always enjoy the vegetables of the season. I like to think that when a crop endures the climatic conditions of the respective season, it might also serve me with the right stuff to endure the season. I’m not so much a fruit person, but I like berries of any kind.
Ashley Franzen is a writer, editor, educator, and photographer based in Bonn, Germany. She earned a BA in Liberal Studies from Portland State University with foci in English, Spanish, geography, geology, international studies, sociology, psychology, and conflict resolution. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and has been writing and teaching English in Germany since 2014. As a Global Citizen and transnational humanist, she sees no borders and aims to connect the world through words. She writes with the purpose of expressing science and complexity in a comprehensible way. Through her writing she hopes to increase awareness around topics in climate change, environmentalism, earth sciences, consciousness, and our collective humanity, while being vocal against capitalism, conspicuous consumption, corruption, injustice, among other social and geopolitical issues. Ashley hopes to support RTE’s mission with her skills in writing and education in order to contribute to deepening the understanding of soil, planetary, and human health. She can be reached via ashley.franzen.io.