It’s More Than Just Dirt!

By Juliette Frank

As scientists and environmental organizations constantly remind us of the dire future we are heading towards if we don’t substantially decrease greenhouse gas emissions, it feels more and more like we are doomed. Trying to grasp the degree of large-scale change necessary to halt and try to reverse the rate at which our planet is warming can be overwhelming, especially when thinking about actions for individual change. Along with destructive storms and extreme weather patterns, one of the critical issues caused by climate change is its detrimental effect on our ability to grow crops, putting our food supply in jeopardy. Ironically, our current agricultural system is one of the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Industrial agriculture, which uses at least 75% of the world’s agricultural land, is fossil-fuel intensive and uses mass amounts of synthetic fertilizers, which depletes the soil and has a plethora of harmful environmental effects. In recent years there has been a major shift in focus to the importance of soil and its connection to the overall health of our planet. One organization in particular, called Kiss the Ground, has been a leader in advocating for the power of soil and its crucial role in building a sustainable future.

“Industrial agriculture uses at least 75% of the world’s agricultural land with little regard for the longevity and health of that land.”

Kiss the Ground is a non-profit organization focused on exposing the benefits of “regenerative” agriculture and its potential for carbon sequestration as a solution to climate change. Regenerative agriculture is a more recently coined term for a method of farming that has been used for generations, mostly by indigenous communities. Kiss the Ground defines ‘Regenerative Agriculture’ as a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. Regenerative Agriculture aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming and ranching communities. The system draws from decades of scientific and applied research by the global communities of indigenous people, organic farming, agroecology, Holistic Management, and agroforestry.1

Not only is quality soil necessary for planetary health, but there is also growing research that soil health is directly connected to human health. Most of the average per capita calorie consumption worldwide comes from crops grown directly in soil, meaning that humans are heavily reliant on soil for their main sources of food. Soils are also a main source of nutrients and act as natural filters for removing contaminants from water. The industrial agriculture industry, which accounts for most food production in the U.S., is profit-driven, breeding plants for size and growth rate by using synthetic fertilizers to produce high yields, which depletes the soil and leads to low nutrient-dense crops. Soils can contain toxic chemicals, heavy metals and pathogens which may have the potential to negatively impact human health if these substances are passed on through soil uptake.2 The food we eat today contains less protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin C than food produced fifty years ago.3 Up until recently, little attention had been paid to the relationship between the health of our soils and the health of our crops with the assumption that a carrot is a carrot no matter where it grows. In the past few years there has been increased interest and research done on the link between the nutrient density of our food and the quality of our soils. Regenerative agriculture has played a large part in that conversation as it prioritizes soil health, which in turn grows healthier, more nutritious food.

“The food we eat today contains less protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin C than food produced fifty years ago.”

Similar to the human gut microbiome, biodiversity is vital to the health and productivity of the soil. The more microbes from organic matter, the better the soil is able to maintain its structure, provide nutrients, retain and recycle added nutrients, and provide habitat and water storing capacity.4 Conversely, modern agriculture’s dependence on pesticides lowers the biological diversity of the soil which makes it vulnerable to pathogenic organisms and pests which depletes overall soil health. Ironically, we treat humans in a similar manner: instead of using preventative measures such as focusing on improving overall well-being and immune resilience by properly nourishing our bodies, we rely on pharmaceuticals and chemicals to treat disease which creates a vicious cycle.4 Just as soils must be fed a biologically diverse community of organisms to maintain a high nutrient profile, humans need to eat a diverse diet, made up of mostly plants and whole grains, to feed their gut microbiome and build a resilient immune system. The importance of diversity in maintaining well-nourished soils and the gut microbiome is crucial to feeding a healthy internal ecosystem that supports overall functioning and well-being.

“Similar to the human gut microbiome, microbial biodiversity is vital to the health and productivity of the soil.”

As more research continues to come out proving the direct connection between the health of our soils to human and planetary health, it is more important than ever to promote sustainable soil management. It is organizations like Kiss the Ground that are leading in spreading the word on the power of soil through their recently released documentary and educational programs which help to facilitate real action steps towards a global shift in sustainable farming practices. In order to mitigate the climate crisis and build a sustainable food system to feed us all, we must focus on restoring our soils by advocating for a regenerative future.

References

  1. “About Us,” Kiss the Ground (blog), accessed April 23, 2021, https://kisstheground.com/about-us.
  2. R. L. Hough, “Soil and Human Health: An Epidemiological Review,” European Journal of Soil Science 58, no. 5 (October 2007): 1200–1212.
  3. “Nutrient Density,” Rodale Institute (blog), accessed April 23, 2021, https://rodaleinstitute.org/why-organic/issues-and-priorities/nutrient-density.
  4. “Digging Into Soil Health,” accessed April 23, 2021, https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/062909p38.shtml.

Juliette Frank is a UCLA student majoring in Public Affairs with a minor in Food Studies. Her interests include the interrelation between food systems, digestive health and the environmental impacts of food production.


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