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The Soil Regeneration Project

We envision healthy social-soil communities: communities championing healthy soil with the capacities to regenerate local agri-culture.

Photo of Huiying Ng
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Aerthly

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

1. Community group and non-profit Foodscape Collective - seedyears.foodscapecollective.com Foodscape Pages - foodscapepages.org - content branch of Foodscape Collective Mentors and practitioners - interviews and profiles on The Sauce published under Foodscape Collective, thesauce.foodscapepages.org 2. Government statutory boards: the National Parks Board's Plant Science and Health Laboratory (soil science lab) HortPark and Community Gardens department (Community engagement department); National Biodiversity Centre (national soil science data collection and reporting department) 3. Academic research partners: - Yale-NUS College faculty member

Website of Legally Registered Entity

soilregenerationproject.com

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Singapore

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Singapore

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Singapore

What country is your selected Place located in?

Singapore

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Singapore arouses mixed feelings for us - seen as a success story, it is also a place where memory, emotion, and human connection have been routinely devalued in favour of its future. For the generation that saw Singapore through its years of independence, Singapore can be alienating, enforcing material wellbeing at the expense of social connection and emotional life, and space (physical and imaginative) to nurture a connection with food beyond the plate.

So if Singapore is anything, it’s a place that has constantly left behind one story for something newer. Often, this changing story affects physical locations and people’s relationships with place. Sense of place, in Singapore, rarely has opportunity to develop beyond a decade. From outside of Singapore, though, this isn’t a visible problem: Singapore is looked to as an aspirational city for many other Asian cities--efficient, clean, rich: signs of modernity and progress.

What that means is that ideas of distance, connection to land, and the treasuring of land, has few physical stakes to attach to in Singapore. The value of land, place, and the emotional place that Place holds in people’s hearts, is devalued. For both locals born and raised in Singapore, and for foreigners, this creates a bubble of living more present- and future-focused, with a strong belief in technological and engineering ability to reign over nature, and always a focus on the next trend. More bluntly, one might say that the act of living in Singapore--over time--becomes a dehumanising, de-natured enterprise. We become habituated to treat humans, and land, as products and commodities that we can manufacture, sculpt, train, or create. And as this occurs, our relationships with food and the food system become similar: policy seeks to find solutions to a complex food system, without asking what stories exist in that food system, or what valuable capacities already exist that can only grow if we invest action and attention in them.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The school of non-violent communication teaches us that solutions cannot be found without first knowing the needs of the broader set of actors. We feel that, if Singapore is indicative of rising urbanising Asia, a food system vision focused on Singapore is a vision not of Singapore alone, but of the interconnected links between Singapore and the countries that feed Singapore. 

Singaporeans take their food very seriously--once it's on a plate. Food is diverse and delicious, and can range from Michelin star luxury restaurants to local coffee shops and hawker stalls, which is our equivalent of street food. However, the produce that supports our food system is predominantly imported--over 90$--and it is only in the last two years that Singaporeans have begun asking about the sustainability of our food supply. Yet, while Singapore is now classified as 100% urban by global censuses, it was once self-sufficient with a majority of food produced by family farms that covered the island. After independence in 1965, its urbanization process directed farming into the back seat, letting development and the manufacturing industry take root.


At present, efforts that go into building local food production capacity focus on a spread of improving the capacity of family farms, building a new generation of young farmers, and high-tech efforts with a growing agri-tech sector. While less obvious now, top-down governance and a culture of elite-knows-best continues to shape technological and infrastructural changes, and thus everyday life, in Singapore. 


On the bright side, there is a strong ability for solutions to be quickly prototyped; the negative side is the narrowed window for political and radical imagination. Amidst the material comfort of living that most people enjoy in Singapore - green spaces and parks, and a good transportation network - it’s easy to pass over actual domestic inequality in Singapore, as well as the need for a balanced civic sphere: of civil society, government, and private interests.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

721

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

5700000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Singapore’s food system relies on the reliability and security of its supply chains, but also on the knowledge its people have about the source of their sustenance. Singapore’s key challenges in 2050 will be the challenges of a world at war and climate crisis: uneven food availability and foreclosed futures. However, even now, the majority of us in the city have lost our sensory abilities and imaginations to act with agency, and think outside of this “planetary urbanisation” of our imaginations about how else we could work with nature, to feed ourselves, and cool the planet. If we were to think of urban dispossession as sensory detachment and desensitisation to the things that nourish our senses, and feed intrinsic motivation, and pleasure, then our greatest challenge today is the loss of our ability to experience potential and hope.

Critics often suggest that Singapore’s small size and youth lessens the complexity of policy-making, unlike other Asian counterparts. But Singapore also comparably has a far smaller, and weaker balance to its policy-making mechanism: civil society and the public sphere is small, and slow to regenerate. The plus side of this is the ability for state-driven solutions to be quickly prototyped; the negative side is the narrowed window for political and radical imagination. Put in socio-ecological terms, the challenges of such a socio-political system are the narrowing of options and adaptive capacities to sustain a diverse landscape of alternatives.

Singapore's challenge is therefore not its alone, but shared by other cities: the challenges of 2020 that circulate as mainstream anxieties, in Singapore, reflect the challenges identified by capital-intensive industries worldwide: Industrial agriculture, particularly meat production, identified as a leading greenhouse gas emittor; food shortage identified as a leading cause to be prevented in a world of 9 billion. For the policymakers and engineers who build our cities and select the challenges society responds to, these are descriptive challenges with clear parameters, for which one can seemingly create controllable solutions with a clear guarantee of success.

However, these solutions stem from a mindset dedicated to building engineering resilience, instead of greater adaptive capacity resilience (King and Powell, 2000; King, 2008). Building adaptive capacities means to continue generating options and scenarios, so communities can transition together. Unfortunately, this work is often seen as too pedagogical, requiring too much time, un-scaleable, not observable, not a building or construction one can see or pour money into. 

We believe that the challenges we face in 2050 are a lack of attention to regenerating capacities for knowledge-intensive food systems, lack of engagement with hope, fear, and withdrawal, and the general dispossession of knowledge of the ecological world. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

We believe we can demonstrate that adaptive capacity through community-led soil regeneration is a tangible, measureable, and observable indicator of transformative environmental governance--and that building it can allow business and communities alike to access value in a better food system. We see co-learning and action as key: of learning our individual and collective power to build connections and momentum, to regain resilience and trust in one another’s ability to work together. We believe food visions that can transform our global system are the ones that move us into a different paradigm: from a paradigm that operates through mechanisms that create lack--bringing in parachuted solutions and external consultant support, which only reinforces lack and detachment--to enabling dialogue and connection on multiple scales. For this, we need to evolve a vision that works through food and food-growing as a global cultural bridge, but retains the significance of living and eating within the holding capacities of the bioregions we dwell in--however momentarily.

The Soil Regeneration Project aims to be practical and persuasive. At its core, it is a community-based capacity-building programme, grounded in a community-led research process, supported and scaffolded by academic research institutions. It is persuasive in that it is ultimately a storytelling mechanism for healthy soil communities, lobbying governmental agencies by holding the space for soil, and introducing them to communities abroad and at home, that care, support, and see a different future. The storytelling process weaves through the entire project--from its birth to end, we have seen already how it tells a story of urban and rural soil’s connectivity, which is as much an act of narrative reframing, as it is the reorientation of communities of practice. This inter-disciplinary conversation has so far involved soil scientists, educators, policy-makers and urban planning consultants, app developers and start-ups, students, families, gardeners, growers, farmers and eaters.

The Soil Regeneration Project begins in Singapore, showing that urban soil can be regenerated, and regenerate social trust between communities, governments, and businesses. By regenerating the physical condition of urban soi, it also regenerates the value of non-urban imaginaries. 

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Our Vision is one where we move from importing 90% of our food to importing just under 60%, because local capacities to grow food has increased dramatically, along with changes to urban infrastructure and work-life rhythms. Where living in Singapore is desirable not for its shopping malls and high consumerism, but for its balance of green areas, farmland, and conscious eaters. Where businesses cooperatively buy and support from neighbouring Southeast Asian organic farms, and Singapore’s agri-food innovation hub becomes known as a leader in sustainable food systems and place-based, regional food economies with finance options that replenish the 8 forms of capital.  Where children’s awareness of neighbouring countries informs their choices of what to eat. 

We will know we’ve met this Vision when: 

  • We see children walking with parents on the streets, able to identify edible plants from the side of streets and to eat them, because a citizen’s movement has worked to regenerate connecting patches of soil in the city, linking these with the city’s urban reforestation programme. 

  • When children of wealthy families, working families and families receiving aid are equally able to recognise a native plant, and equally able to take a seedling to plant it in an area near their home--accessible and safe for them to water, care for, and harvest from. 

  • When the majority of the Singaporean population--middle- and lower-middle income Singaporeans, stuck in the frenzy of competitive child-rearing--say they want to commit to spending time with their children, to seek out, and support the work of smallholder farmers in other places and to complete one cycle of growing their own food. 

  • When by 2030, the next generation of twenty-year olds intuitively band together as customers and supporters, to financially and physically support, learn from, and create fair and respectful modes of exchange with selected clusters of local and regional farms with regenerative soil practices.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Places are made by the people and practices that accumulate in place, and Places are broken by systems that degrade the dynamic circulation of knowledge. We want to build a movement that’s a living circulation of materials, that bring healthy soil into the spotlight in all urban centres. We want to demonstrate its interdependence with agroecological systems--farmland, pasture, agroforests, rainforests, wetlands, and mangroves--inside and outside of urban centres. In other words, we want a revision of urban food systems--to make soil care part of the social ecology of a close-knitted, place-based community that both hopes and acts.


We’ve started with a research pilot for soil in Singapore, in which we’ve involved others in creating a community-led literature review, backed by a local research firm. We have collected material, and next we want to move on to knowledge consolidation in a series of readable formats and hands-on practical formats. We are receiving invitations to hold workshops and share material, and gaining interest from other groups - communities, restaurants, and place-making firms alike. On our list of things to create--besides our  working wiki platform (https://soilproject.miraheze.org/)--are a Community Soil Manual that acts as a toolkit of practices, methods and steps we have begun using and highlights people and soil sites readers can visit and contact in Singapore, and inspiration for any would-be soil advocate. 


We have broader visions about the culture change we seek, and preparations underway to realise these. 


First, we want our work to support and seed collective knowledge generation around healthy soil in Southeast Asia: a citizen science programme linking work with communities and university-backed research programmes. We are in discussions to put together a research programme with faculty members in Singapore, including at the Yale-NUS College, to look at the story of soil--as a material, as a product, as a supply chain, and as an empirical scientific object. This research, if it comes underway, will fulfill one of our broader goals: to link high-level measurement reporting on soil with community gardeners and practitioners, and to do so by building capacity for environmental education and knowledge production at the academic, university, and pre-university levels.


Second, this project has been an adventure in learning to speak for urban soil from day 1. Every non-response or rejection amongst policy-makers and scientists here has taught us how to refine our message, and to position urban soil in a world where it does not feature in the narrative frame that  power-holders and knowledge producers behold, and create. Our lessons have taught us how to build sympathy and agreement amongst diverse actors, and these early interactions have proven fruitful. We want to demonstrate the strength of our vision, and to achieve it: that community-led research efforts can build a movement around an ecological matter--this material thing called soil or earth--while exploring, intervening in, and regenerating social culture--knowledge about ourselves, and knowledge about our necessary interdependence with living, healthy soil. 


Third, we want to go beyond speaking for soil, to speaking with soil communities. We are diving into building our capacity building programme with key audiences (schools, the public, community gardeners) this year, to merge it with a research programme for successive years. We want to use this opportunity to create material that inspires, captures, and works with the participants of our programme to co-create a collective story about social-soil communities together.


Fourth, as we build out our capacity-building programme, its curriculum and materials, and run it with schools and the public this year, the programme becomes a vehicle towards a third phase: of building a platform for businesses with products and services capable of nurturing the practice of soil regeneration. 


Our vision for the Soil Regeneration Project is of building seed capacity for communities, knowledge producers, and businesses to do good, influence policy, inspire and move people and entities from inertia to action, and bring a regenerative food economy and marketplace into daily life.


Finally, our Vision of soil regeneration--as something anyone can pick up the skills to do, as adaptive capacities for a more regenerative food system--begins in a single Place, but is a Vision of multiple places. It is a vehicle through which we can point towards a vision of several Southeast Asian bioregions connected by strong nodes in cities and their outskirts, which provide connecting points for the circulation of food, alternative education, autonomous capacity-building, and knowledge resources. It envisions people equipped with the language and understanding of how soil, water, land, and food, are interconnected with their own health, and to have the capacities to advocate for, challenge, and persuade local governing authorities through peaceful and creative means that bring joy, hope, and connection to multiple stakeholders. The Soil Project wishes to bring cities’ resources and aspirational visions into convergence with those of peri-urban nodes--focusing on distributed, small-scale, decentralised but co-ordinating nodes as a constellation for impact and change, and equalising power imbalances. 

From capacity-building programmes in Singapore to grow people’s interest in the region that feeds them, and its ecologies (including care and protection of rainforest biodiversity, land and water), we envision continuing with programmes linking Singapore and other urban centres. From other urban and peri-urban centres in Southeast Asia (such as KL, JB in Malaysia, Manado in Indonesia, Thailand, Manila in the Philippines and Mandalay in Myanmar), we will work with local urban settlements and communities to build up local soil regeneration for the most severely vulnerable urban communities, towards health, food and climate justice. By 2022, we envision beginning projects in Thailand and Malaysia that span: local capacity-building programmes and food production in island resorts and hotels, working with the tourism industry to make urban-rural travel a point of education and regeneration, rather than consumption and excess, and working with ethnic minorities in Thailand to find adequate approaches to long-term, safe agricultural livelihoods. By 2030, we envision a reframing of the “urban-rural” connection in practical terms and our everyday language: from one of degeneration in pursuit of urban aspirations, to one of regeneration, through a more collective form of future-making.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Our network of visionaries and tinkerers :)

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Photo of Leonardo Duque
Team

Hello Huiying, I will like to learn from your methodological approach to soil regeneration. My son in his family lives in Singapore and I have visited your country several times.
As part of the team "Empowering rural youth by learning the methods of science in the context of the immense potential of biodiversity to generate employment," I will like to invite you to examine the viability to benefit also the local farmers. Farmers have greater risks, work harder and manage a greater complexity than the other actors in the food value chain. Please read about it in our vision proposal. Please contact me for any support Leonardo duque.leonardo@gmail.com

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