Digging In: David Strelneck
This interview is part of "Digging In," an Agrilinks interview series featuring original conversations and unique perspectives from soil experts. Through these discussions, we explore questions about soil science and management, scaling best practices, and more. Read more from “Digging In” here.
David Strelneck leads the environment, soils and agriculture side of the global Nutrient Value Chain initiative at Ashoka. Over the past four years, his team identified the flow of bioavailable nutrition from ecosystems and soils into human health, through food systems, as the underlying basis of a wide range of business, farming, healthcare, and environmental innovations that are emerging worldwide. In collaboration with the social entrepreneurs behind over 100 of these system-changing innovations in India, Africa, Europe, and North America, Mr. Strelneck and Ashoka are now working to spread action and further innovation along this nutrient value chain.
Below, David speaks about his work with Ashoka's Fellows, who are working on innovative projects related to this nutrient value chain, and he elaborates on the critical role that soil plays throughout all of it.
Agrilinks: From your perspective, how is the approach to soil science and soil management changing in agricultural development?
David: My perspective is that of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, in contrast to what we think of as more traditional disciplines. What’s changing from this perspective is that entrepreneurial people are beginning to understand soil as the integrating point of many different and important issues that can create value and work together rather than be in conflict with one other. So people are realizing that if you find ways to enrich soils, then you end up benefitting your agriculture, your watershed, your nutrition, your environment. Whether it’s maintaining clean water flow or preventing desertification, you improve the nutritional quality of the food you consume. From Ashoka’s perspective, you’re also putting an understanding of the resource (that we’re calling soil) and nutrition and a sense of opportunity back in the hands of local populations who then have a chance to steer their own course, rather than be dependent on external governments or policies or resources. We’re therefore seeing soil as a nexus point for a high-leverage strategy connecting both the physical and the social sciences.
Agrilinks: Specifically, what are the top two critical issues that you think need to be addressed in soil management?
David: There are many issues, but here are the two top issues from my perspective. One is understanding the importance of the life in the soil and understanding soil as a living organism. Because that life in the soil—I mean the living part, in contrast to dead "dirt"—affects all of the positive outcomes I just mentioned, and it’s often not understood. Whether we're a small-scale or large-scale farmer, a policy-maker, or whoever else, we often think of soil as dirt with some nutrients in it. But people need to understand that the microbial component of the soil is essential to turning that soil into the nutrients we need, to sequestering carbon, and so forth.
Then I think the second issue is better understanding the role of the full range of micronutrients in the soil. There are more than 40 micronutrients and trace elements that cycle through the soil. Less than 10 or 20 of them are usually tracked and thought about and fertilized for and paid attention to. Yet we’re seeing that these other 20 or 30 nutrients are actually pretty important in the life of the soil, in combating pests, etc. So the top two issues are thinking about the biological life of the soil and paying more attention to the full spectrum of micronutrients rather than just a narrow range.
Agrilinks: What do you view as the highest potential risk of poor soil management in the next decade?
David: Global climate change, under-development, under-nutrition—the list can go on. But, from the Ashoka perspective, one of the highest risks is if we continue to undermine the ability of local people to develop and confront the greatest challenge we’re facing on the planet. By managing soils poorly, we’re going to disempower those changemakers, whom we all need to survive and thrive.
Agrilinks: In your opinion, what are the keys to scaling up adoption of successful and improved soil management practices?
David: There are a few things we’re focused on at Ashoka because we see great opportunity. One that is spreading through all disciplines is the understanding of soils. At Ashoka we call this the “Nutrient Value Chain” framework. So helping people adjust their frame of thinking—whether a local citizen, a child, an engineer, a policymaker, or whoever—by spreading this frame of reference we call the nutrient value chain, we hope that people start to understand soils differently as more information becomes available. At the human nutrition/downstream end of what we call the nutrient value chain, one priority is standardizing the metrics/measurement of full-nutrition or nourishment in a way that serves as the basis for communications and transactions. Today full-nutrion is measured in many different ways, mostly based on nutrient inputs rather than performance outcomes. Once outcome measurements are standardized, they will, among other things, drive economic and social demand from the human nutrition side of the story to the soil health side of the same story.
Number two is the importance of putting this understanding into the hands of youth, because it really is young people who very soon will dominate the world population in term of numbers, and they have the creative energy and insight to break away from tradition. They will need to become the talent for the future—for this new frame of reference and innovating around it. We need to get this frame of reference to role models—like through the Ashoka fellowship-–and get tools into the hands of youth.
Number three is to get an understanding of very practical health, economic, political, and cultural opportunities into the hands of local government institutions. I say this because—whether we mean a big city mayor or town council or the leader of a rural area—whoever governs locally should see this Nutrient Value Chain prospect, with its anchor in soils, as a wealth of opportunities to improve what they care about, such as community resilience, local economic well-being, health and wealth. There needs to be an affirmation of practices that resonate with local traditions, whatever the context. We need to get the Nutrient Value Chain frame of reference into the hands of whoever it is that manages locally.
Agrilinks: For you personally, what led you to pursue your interest in soils and environmental issues?
David: I’ve spent my career, which is now 20-something years long, tackling environmental challenges around the world. Long ago I chose to focus my interests here because of the rural mountain town in the United States where I grew up, and due to a sense of all the physical and cultural benefits that nature provides to people. I was heavily involved in the Montreal Protocol in 1990s, and a number of other environmental innovations throughout the years. Through Ashoka and a certain grant we had several years ago, we began looking at what is new in rural agriculture, specifically in India and Africa, and we found that rural development and agricultural innovations were providing an increased focus on practices that, by virtue of what makes them succeed, also helped the environment. All of these things we’re discussing now about soil and local economic opportunity and defeating malnutrition—the leading innovative solutions we started seeing among social entrepreneurs all had these very powerful benefits for the environment as well. So that’s my personal link. I’m very excited because as an environmentalist I’m seeing a tremendous opportunity, which will benefit the health sector and the economy while injecting opportunities into the environmental field as well. It’s a “win-win-win,” if you will.
Based on what I’m seeing with social entrepreneurs around world, the link between soil and agriculture—we’re not talking about just protecting the environment. We have a chance to completely change that “protection” way of thinking. It’s about using the environment as an immensely powerful tool that helps create health and economic benefits while also bringing environmental benefits.
Agrilinks: What can you tell us about your work at Ashoka regarding the nutrient value chain linking ecosystems to human health and well-being?
David: In simple form, Ashoka does a couple of things. We try to identify social entrepreneurs who are changing the way systems work around the world—any system, and we support them irrespective of topic. We also study those people. By identifying and aggregating information about the 3,000 Ashoka fellows in 72 countries—if you consider them to represent a dataset of entrepreneurship, you can see what it tells you about opportunities for the future. You look for patterns and insights.
And it’s out of that that we have this group whom we’ve elected to support as changemakers in rural development and innovation. Three or four years after looking for these patterns, we now have developed this Nutrient Value Chain understanding. There are 150–200 fellows in different countries who are leading initiatives related to this.
Agrilinks: Do you have any examples or case studies of social entrepreneurs worldwide who are implementing really innovative projects related to soils, the environment, and nutrition?
David: For example, at the human end of this value chain proposition, we have a chemist in South Africa who invented a food supplement known as e’Pap, which proved to be very effective at helping malnourished children get back to their baseline physical and cognitive strength, and which helped children in health clinics recover faster than those with a more traditional diet. By working with Basil, the chemist, we learned that he incorporated into his supplement many different micronutrients and other nutritional content that is often refined out of our foods. Even though he didn’t necessarily know what value that content would provide, in looking at his results, he’s seen high rates of success. Now he's sort of reverse-engineering to figure out why, which has helped all of us focus on topics of bioavailability and nutrient spectrum.
There is also Dale Lewis, a farmer in Zambia, who created an effort to help relieve the desperation of about a million people in the Luangwa River Valley—which is a largely agricultural and forested area that for many years had experienced the traditional, cyclical “hunger season.” When the desperation hit, those people were doing what it took to try to feed their families, including cutting down forests and poaching elephants. So Dale tried to create a farming enterprise there that would relieve the hunger season.
He created COMACO, a food company. The name stands for Community Markets for Conservation. Approximately 10 years later, he has just over 100,000 smallholder farmers involved in his supply chain. The enterprise has largely helped to relieve the hunger season since the participating farmers are successfully farming throughout the year in more sustainable ways through practices that enrich soils locally, like recycling waste and planting nitrogen-fixing trees (over 20 million). By correlating these types of practices with a number of other roles (i.e., the trees have branches that people can cut for firewood), he has generated success. He also tied eligibility to participate in the enterprise to the promise of returning guns and snares and agreeing not to poach the local wildlife. Farmers have turned these weapons in because they want to be part of this farming operation, because it’s successful. A number of local authorities are also now buying into his model and trying to replicate it as a means for local economic development. The people are healthier, wealthier, better-nourished, and happier—it’s not like they wanted to have to cut down the forests or poach elephants to begin with, and things are better. And Dale has built this large enterprise based on this concept.
Agrilinks: Can you suggest some key resources that practitioners can refer to for additional information?