Soil, Seeds and Social Change: Ecologies for Understanding

Project Details


The overall aim of the Soil, Seeds and Social Change initiative was to bring together different communities of expertise with a common interest in soil, seeds and social change, to explore issues related to the production and translation of environmental knowledge. The project was thus designed to bring together social scientists and natural scientists from the University of Bristol and nearby academic communities; community organisers, artists, activists and growers from Bristol and the South West; and food sovereignty activists and small-scale land-workers in El Salvador.. The initiative sought to build shared understandings of the ways in which these different communities conceptualise and approach soil, seeds and social change, and of the challenges of translating and transmitting their different forms of environmental expertise across social, geographical and epistemic divides. In doing so, it aimed to establish new relationships between social and natural scientists, academics and experts-by-experience, as a basis for more focused and in-depth collaborative research.

The initiative developed a number of activities to explore and build shared understanding of different forms of soil and seed expertise. These included a monthly reading group, covering themes such as soil richness, food sovereignty, seed saving and biodiversity, and a series of participatory workshops on ‘Translating Soil’ (26 March), ‘Local Food: Polyanna or Panacea’ (3 May), ‘Thinking with Plants’ (25 June) and ‘Soil, Seeds and Social Change: The Conversation’ (28 October) which were held at different sites in Bristol. It also included two sets of field research: the first, carried out by Naomi Millner, involved the use of documentary and participatory film techniques to explore permaculture practices in a number of sites in El Salvador; the second, carried out by Mark Jackson, involved documentary photography and conversations with community organisers and growers at community gardens and allotments around Bristol.

Visit to read more about the project, watch the documentary film made by Naomi Millner about her fieldwork in El Salvador, read about related initiatives around the world, and look at Mark Jackson’s photographs from his fieldwork in Bristol.

Layman's description

Sustainable soil and seed futures are not just a matter of framing the right questions, but of inviting the full range of ‘experts’ to the table – in particular, those whose environmental understandings derive from intimate, practice-based interactions with ecological processes. Action and participatory methodologies also reflect an underlying requirement to approach environmental problems and challenges through the complex relational properties of humans and non-humans that are often abstracted and over-simplified as ‘human-environment relations’. Beginning with the premise that there is no separation between humans and environments reveals important forms of knowledge, expertise and political commitments essential in fostering sustainable futures.

Key findings

The initiative has allowed different communities of environmental expertise to start making connections between their different approaches and areas of expertise, leading to some specific initiatives for future collaborative research. These include strengthened partnerships with networks in El Salvador; new working relationships between the University of Bristol and Feed Bristol (Avon & Bristol Wildlife Trust); a vibrant emergent research theme around permaculture practices which connects academics, local permaculture communities and El Salvador; and productive conversations between SSSC and other Cabot initiatives such as the ‘Mainstreaming Biodiversity’ workshops. A short documentary film (25 mins) about her experience in El Salvador was produced, shot, and narrated by Naomi Millner. The film was made possible by the SSSC funds. 

The project as a whole has also generated trust and mutual understanding between the different academic and non-academic communities involved, and shared understanding of the nature and value of the different forms of environmental expertise being developed by social scientists, natural scientists and experts-by-experience in the contemporary world. The project also recently led to funding for further impact by Naomi Millner, the PI of SSSC. Naomi was awarded (02.2015) ESRC Impact funding (£13,000) by Bristol University to support a new collaboration with ‘Bioversity International’, a Research for Development organization that specializes in the protection of agricultural and forestry biodiversity. The funds will allow Naomi to contribute to the 'Livelihoods' theme in a multi-million pound inter-disciplinary research program focused on biodiversity conservation within forests in Mesoamerica. Drawing on her participatory work with small-scale farmers and social movements in El Salvador, Naomi will complement the range of scientific and economic studies being undertaken by contributing toward cultural understandings of nature and conservation amongst the forest indigenous communities. She will also support the design of impact pathways for the broader research by developing in-depth understanding of diverse stakeholder interests and perceptions of the research.
Effective start/end date1/01/131/01/14

Structured keywords

  • Cabot Institute Food Security Research


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