As part of a new global movement, farmers and schoolchildren in Australia and New Zealand are burying their cotton underwear in the soil and digging it up again eight weeks later.
The citizen science project, which started in the US, is called the Soil Your Undies Challenge and is now gathering momentum across the region.
CottonInfo, the Australian cotton industry’s extension programme, joined forces with Oliver Knox, a senior lecturer at the School of Environmental and Rural Science at the University of New England in New South Wales, to launch the programme.
Cox told Al Jazeera that cotton contained cellulose, which made it a tasty snack for microbes and “the army of other tiny decomposers that live in the soil”.
“The state of the garments when they are retrieved will indicate the health of the microbiome. If there is not much left of the cloth, then the soil is healthy and teeming with activity. If it is mostly intact, then work is necessary to improve the situation.”
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In 2018, Knox and Sally Dickinson, a regional extension officer at CottonInfo, asked 50 farmers if they would be willing to bury their underwear for science.
“Not only did they do it, but they were competing with each other, saying things like: ‘My soil is better than yours because I have more degraded pants,’” said Knox.
The programme was initially started as a way of educating people about soil health and how it could improve the environment.
“A healthy soil microbiome is the lifeblood of plants and can accelerate growth and even bolster resistance to disease. Experts believe it can also affect the nutritional content of food,” he told Al Jazeera.
Farmers whose underwear indicated poor soil health began exploring ways to regenerate their land, such as changing their crop rotation programme, or leaving more stubble on the ground.
Since then, the Soil Your Undies campaign spread among farming communities, with schools also joining the initiative.
It was estimated that about 400 people had since buried their undergarments across the country, allowing scientists to explore soil health in different parts of Australia, while collecting data for other research projects. People were now also submitting their results to CottonInfo.
In neighbouring New Zealand, a government-funded Soil Your Undies Challenge kicked off as a pilot project in six schools during 2020, while another six will be part of the project by July. It was hoped that the programme will eventually be rolled out nationwide.