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Exploring Soil Microbiology: an educational experience

On 22 January 2024, Food4Sustainability (F4S) conducted an educational experiment on soil microbiology for a 5th grade class at Escola Básica 2+3 Professor Delfim Santos in Lisbon. Under the scientific guidance of Margarida Palma and with the help of Cecília Franco, the students immersed themselves in the curious microscopic universe of soil.

 

From theory to practice

 

The session began with a brief theoretical approach to the microorganisms that populate the soil and are fundamental to food production - a variety of bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa and microscopic animals make up what should be healthy soil.


 

It was through a card game developed by Margarida Palma, an operations researcher at F4S with a PhD in microbiology, that the students were able to explore and get to know some examples of microorganisms that inhabit the soil and what their role is - beneficial or harmful - in the balance of this ecosystem. The game also gave way to improvisation: "We responded to the enthusiasm and interest shown by the students, and proposed a dynamic exercise where they could understand the role of pesticides in soil microbiology, and how conventional farming practices have led to soils losing much of their natural ability to generate nutrients," explains Cecília Franco, a nutritionist who has been health and well-being specialist at F4S since January 2021.

 

The activity ended with an observation of soil samples, revealing to the youngsters the complexity and richness of the microorganisms that inhabit the earth's substrate. Microscopic observation revealed everything from dancing bacteria to solitary protozoa, providing an intimate view of life invisible to the naked eye.

 

By empowering new generations with knowledge about soil microbiology, the action promotes a mindset geared towards environmental preservation and the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices. This approach is in line with F4S's commitment to driving innovation for a more sustainable food future.

 

Healthy soils generate healthy food

 

"Microbial biodiversity in soils plays a crucial role in decomposing organic matter, fixing nutrients and promoting plant resistance to diseases," says Margarida Palma. Healthy soils play an essential role in ensuring nutritious and sustainable food. "Balanced, nutrient-rich soil is the basis for the growth of healthy plants, which in turn provide the essential elements for our nutrition," explains Cecília Franco.

 

By understanding the importance of soil microbiology, we are contributing to the promotion of healthy soils, capable of sustaining nutritious crops and, consequently, a more balanced and beneficial diet for our health. This knowledge acquired during the educational action not only enriches the students' perspective on science, but also empowers them as advocates of sustainable agricultural practices and conscious food choices: here, the Portuguese popular saying "it's from small that the cucumber is twisted" applies perfectly.

 

F4S recognises that soils are the basis of food production and play a crucial role in food sustainability. By fostering an understanding of soil microbiology from a young age, it seeks to plant seeds of awareness about the interconnection between soil health, food production and human health.

 

F4S committed to knowledge transfer

 

By combining science with education, F4S contributes to building a path towards a future in which soil health is valued as a vital component of our global well-being. The path to healthy and sustainable food lies not only with producers, but also with consumers. The younger generations are very much aware of the reality we live in. They want to play an active role in this transition and know that the future is in their hands.

 

"These awareness and education initiatives are part of the F4S agenda, which, as a collaborative laboratory dedicated to innovation in sustainable food, aims to educate and raise awareness of the importance of soil health, from the producer to the consumer," says Cláudia Costa, operations manager at F4S and coordinator of the F4S Academy, the area of F4S responsible for knowledge transfer.

 

Ultimately, "the soil microbiology action is not just a classroom educational experience, but a significant step towards building an educated community that is aware of and committed to preserving the environment," says Ana Baltazar, who has been operations director at F4S since November 2023.

 

As part of F4S's Healthy and Sustainable Food Services, these actions, which include educational games, field trips, sessions on the journey of food or the Mediterranean diet, are available to schools, municipalities and companies that want to enrich their students, communities, and employees with knowledge about healthy and sustainable food.

 

Acknowledgements:

F4S would like to give special thanks for the effort and kindness of teachers Natália Almeida and Alexandra Marto, both for the friendliness with which they welcomed the F4S team, and above all for their willingness and commitment to do more and better for the students of EB 2+3 Professor Delfim Santos.

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