The answer has been right beneath our feet this whole time. And what a bad rap this thing gets. It’s considered by some, unclean, messy, and foul-smelling. It can be synonymous to vile, obscene, naughty or unscrupulous. Generally, when the word comes up in conversation it has a negative connotation. Dirt. Dirty. Soiled. But this thing to which I refer holds the secret to life and possibly the solution to global climate change and world hunger.
The Secret’s in the Soil
It’s time to bring good vibes to dirt. But not just any dirt, alive dirt. In my master gardener training, the instructors were quick to correct us when we referred to soil as dirt. Dirt is dead, they would tell us. At the time, that sounded so Nietzsche’esque, but now I understand. Humans kill soil, depleting all its essential elements rendering it dirt. Industrial agriculture kills soil. Soil is alive. Layers of life and abundance exist within the pockets of oxygen, groupings of particles, and active organisms. To me, its scent is of life and earth. Soil gives life and heals the planet. I am enamored with soil.
And soil will help feed the world, if we give it a chance to work its magic and if we relieve it of the toxic synthetic chemical inputs (think petrochemicals – pesticides). This is why organic farmers should be worshipped and supported, because they are out there creating healthy soil which in turn creates biodiversity that leads to healthy plants that feed the world. Whereas agrochemical companies like Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, and Syngenta are killing soil, turning it into dirt. They are destroying biodiversity and causing great harm to people and the planet.
As our planet’s population grows, farmers – globally – will have to learn to grow food with organic, sustainable practices that eliminate synthetic chemical inputs because as aptly pointed out in an article by Truthout, “underground aquifers are drying out, bees and other pollinators are dying, the climate is getting hotter and drier in many places … Arable land is declining worldwide. Desertification is encroaching on huge swaths of Africa, China and elsewhere. And, in what Foreign Policy Magazine called ‘the gravest natural resource shortage you’ve never heard of,’ the world’s reserves of phosphorus, which is essential in fertilizer production, are rapidly being depleted to the point of exhaustion.”
Regenerative Organic Agriculture
Trending now is the topic of regenerative organic agriculture whose supporters tout its capacity to cool the planet while feeding the world. Rodale Institute claims, “Regenerative organic agriculture improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them. It is a holistic systems approach to agriculture that encourages continual on-farm innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual well being.”
With results like reversing climate change, feeding the world, improving yields, nurturing biodiversity and creating drought-resistant soil, could regenerative organic agriculture be the silver bullet to the world’s major problems and impending crises?
Watch the 17-minute documentary to learn more about the issues of industrial agriculture, the myriad of ways it creates greenhouse gas emissions, and how regenerative organic agriculture solves critical issues.
Here are some key points from the film:
- Synthetic fertilizers used by industrial agriculture are creating dead zones and most fertilizers are not taken up by plants.
- Methane coming from factory farms is a big problem in the form of greenhouse gases.
- Long distance transportation of food results in 50% waste.
- 900,000 small farmers are growing the majority of the food on only 25% of the land.
- Small-scale farmers have the capability of sequestering 100% of current carbon dioxide emission and even begin to draw down excesses.
- Regenerative Organic Agriculture can build the soil to absorb carbon by working with the cycle of nature and create healthy soil, healthy food, and healthy people.
- Mother Nature provides us with the solution: green plants and photosynthesis – green plants take carbon dioxide out of the air and with water and sunlight make simple sugars eventually seeping those into the soil for all the beneficial microbes that live around the roots of the plant.
- By using cover crops, crop rotations, no-till, and compost, the microorganisms hold the carbon until it becomes part of their molecular structure thus giving it lasting power in the soil.
- Photosynthesis and healthy soil biology create healthier plants, which sustains them during drastic weather changes, like drought, because organic soil holds moisture like a sponge.
- Most of the energy put into the chemical growing system is petroleum-based (pesticides and synthetic fertilizers), whereas regenerative organic agriculture uses 45% less energy.
This cool animated video details how soil sequesters carbon.
Southern Oregon soil and compost consultant, Sydney Hamlett, who has a degree in Soil Sciences from Texas A&M University and an Environmental Management Masters from RMIT University Melbourne Australia, shares her insight about how soil can reduce world hunger:
“As the topic of soil becomes more prominent in these ongoing environmental discussions, the food producing capacity of soil is ultimately reduced to yields. Yields, yet again, overshadow the nutritional benefits of crops grown from healthy and balanced soil. It is in this yearly anticipation for more crop and more profit that allows so many producers to direct their focus on “feeding the plant” rather than “growing the soil.” When that trendy nitrogen fertilizer improved the yield by 17% last year but only 7% this year, substantial soil degradation occurred in only one growing season. As it degrades, the volume of micro and macro biology in the soil disappear or go dormant, leaving behind bacterial colonies which select for weeds and leave plants vulnerable to a host of diseases and moisture issues. The current solution in commercial agriculture is a petrochemical adrenaline shot to a barely living biological system. Western philosophy 101: Sterilize and bottle feed. The dust bowl of the 1930s is a national example of soil degradation’s wide-spread effects.
The way forward is to select for a healthy soil biology full of all the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods, and the macro animals from bats to bears. Massive monocultures are another aspect of imbalanced soil biology that needs to evolve. High intensity grazing can support crop production in a most environmentally effective manner, because biological reality is that plants and animals co-exist for many reasons. Animals – be they wildlife, rescued on a farm sanctuary, or otherwise, help to rehab problem pastures simply by eating. The few days of poop, hoof compaction, bugs, and then months-long respite is part of the remediation to fertile land.
This system will begin to sequester the carbon that was previously volatilizing without stable organic matter holding it in place and will relieve carbon pressure from the oceans and atmospheres. All soil around the world has potential to support life, and with careful cultivation, can support whole communities with a plethora of food sources. Be it desert or concrete jungle, clean and nutritious food can happen anywhere soil is grown.”
This year, I have had the enlightening opportunity to work under the direction of soil scientist Scott Goode, the head gardener at the Food Security garden of Jackson County Master Gardener Association through OSU extension. Goode’s focus is on soil ecology and allowing soil biology to do the longterm heavy lifting through no-till practices and by using nonpetroleum-based inputs and tools like the broadfork. These low tech / high result practices support the vital layers of soil, each of which creates habitat for essential microorganisms.
Goode’s techniques using no-till, compost, cover crops, pollinator plants, and beetle banks support biodiversity and healthy plant life ultimately eliminating weeds while improving water retention, yield, and nutrient-dense plants. Plus, the bees like it. Through Goode’s work, teaching and guiding others, he is redefining food production and building a guild of broad fork crusaders who understand that acroecology is taking traditional farming practices into the future.
Doesn’t working with instead of against nature’s inherent wisdom just make more sense?
My Food Justice Diet Experience
A renewed hope and a visual of something glowing and bright at the end of the tunnel inspired me to tackle days 17 & 18 with the enthusiasm of a puppy in a dog park. For two nights (day 16 & 17) I ate a snack about 9:00 pm to ward off hunger at bedtime. Both days we ate dinner early (around 4:30-5:00), and I feared hunger at night. I want to explain, because I know snacking is a luxury afforded people who live with hunger. But because I’ve had a few nights along this journey that I went to bed hungry and because I really really despise that feeling, I chose to take care of myself above and beyond proving a point. For anyone who has ever gone to bed hungry, you know how depressing and anxiety-provoking that feeling can be. It lends itself to an endless string of thoughts that unravel around the first light of day. Going to bed hungry, long, painful hours of suffering with no sleep, and getting out of bed hungry are… depressing. This experience is difficult enough. I don’t need to compound the semi-permanent layer of melancholy that comes with reading and writing all day about people who are suffering with anxious and sad, sleepless, nights. There you have it. Self care. Very important. The end.
Day 17 Food Intake
Fat = 14% (with no oil in my food, this factor drops way down)
Carbs = 71%
Protein = 15%
Dinner today was a fresh, organic salad using gorgeous lettuce and beautiful tomatoes from my garden. I *heart* growing food.
Fat = 40% (oil in the dressing dramatically changes this percentage)
Carbs = 45%
Protein = 16%
If you truly get in touch with a piece of carrot, you get in touch with the soil, the rain, the sunshine. You get in touch with Mother Earth and eating in such a way, you feel in touch with true life, your roots, and that is meditation. If we chew every morsel of our food in that way we become grateful and when you are grateful, you are happy.
~Thich Nhat Hanh
Strangely enough, they have a mind to till the soil, and the love of possessions is a disease in them. ~Sitting Bull
To read other posts in this series, click click click the links. Please share your comments!
Day 1: The Food Justice Diet
Day 2: Alarming and Curious Statistics
Day 3: Finish Your Plate, There are Children Starving in Ethiopia
Day 4: The Nameless Hungry
Days 5-6: “Where Does She Get Her Protein??”
Day 7: One Small NGO Making a Big Impact in Ethiopia
Day 8: The Language of Hunger
Day 9: Plenty of Soy Solutions in Latin America
Days 10-11: Can Small-scale farming feed the world?
Day 12: Why Organic Farming?
Days 13-14: The Have and Have-Nots of Southeast Asia
Day 15: Have You Eaten Today?
Day 16: Hunger in America
Days 17 & 18: Hunger’s Dirty Little Secret
Day 19: Eat Plants
Day 20: Watch This, Read That
Day 21: The Power of Activism