Can Healthy Soil Save the World?
Written by: Kelly Martin
Updated: February 21, 2019
What can we do to save the environment? Sure, you might be familiar with goals for reducing carbon emissions, reducing plastic consumption, switching to clean energy. What maybe hasn’t crossed your mind: the climate solution under our feet.
Soil has the ability to store carbon underground in a process called soil carbon sequestration. Here’s what happens: As plants breathe and grow, they pull carbon dioxide (the most prominent greenhouse gas) out of the air. The carbon travels into the plants’ roots and deposited into the soil. When soil is healthy, it can hold on to that carbon for a long time, keeping it out of the atmosphere. That means less atmospheric carbon driving climate change and more soil-based carbon supporting the people, plants, animals, and microbes in our ecosystems.
Lauren Frances Tucker, the executive director of the soil and agriculture nonprofit Kiss the Ground, says healthy soil can be a powerful tool not only to fight climate change but also to improve our food system and advance public health. But it’ll take a group effort. Farmers can help by following good soil practices. Policymakers can help by setting agricultural standards. And even we everyday environmentalists can pitch in. We asked Tucker how.
A Q&A with Lauren Frances Tucker
We envision a world where humanity is living regeneratively in a harmonious relationship with all life, fully understanding itself as part of the essential cycle of life, treating nature with reverence, and nourishing Mother Earth.
The most important part of that vision is viewing ourselves as part of nature. I think we tend to look at the environment, and then separately look at ourselves and the way our actions affect our environment. We think of “nature” as everything outside of human activity. I think that if we were to start to view ourselves as part of that system, as part of nature, then we would get that we’re intimately tied to our environment, and we would understand that if our environment isn’t thriving, we’re not thriving. Once we get that we’re tied to that environment, then we start making choices differently in our communities: We care for the land. We get to know the people growing our food. We care about where our water and power are coming from. We get to know where our pollution is coming from. And we can make choices that reorient all of nature—including ourselves—toward health.
Instead of viewing a piece of agricultural land as something you put fertilizer and pesticides on in order to extract crops that then feed humans, we’re asking to look at that farm as an ecosystem. How can we nurture the soil to be as healthy as possible? Are we looking at the soil and its potential to draw carbon from the atmosphere as the basis of the farm’s ecosystem? That’s what the term “regenerative agriculture” generally refers to.
For a more rigorous definition, there’s a really wonderful guide from Terra Genesis International called “Levels of Regenerative Agriculture.” The most basic level, as I mentioned, is looking at the farm as an ecosystem with soil at its core. And then when we dig into deeper and deeper levels, so to speak, we’re looking at the farm in relationship to its community, to its people, to its economics, to its watershed, to its region. Ultimately, it’s about how we regenerate and care for entire ecosystems. If we care about healthy food, we have to consider the bigger picture. Healthy food is the by-product.
Carbon actually cycles like water. So just as we think of evaporation and transpiration and clouds and rain as a cycle, we need to think of carbon in terms of its cycle. Carbon is constantly cycling from the atmosphere to the biosphere (all us living things). Carbon is also pulled from the atmosphere into the soil and the ocean. And then carbon is also stored at a much deeper level as fossil fuels, which is what we mine and burn for energy.
When we understand the carbon cycle, then we can dig into plants’ role in that cycle and how we can use plants and soil microbiology to effectively pull atmospheric carbon back into the soil layers. There’s an amazing resource called Drawdown, which gives a hundred ways to draw carbon out of the atmosphere. Seventeen of them are land-based, meaning they use soil carbon sequestration.
We published a simple four-minute video on this topic called “The Soil Story.” The topic of soil carbon sequestration is complex and mostly discussed in the scientific community, but the basics are simple enough: Plants breathe carbon dioxide just as we breathe oxygen, and through their process of photosynthesis, they pull it in and bring it down to the root level. When soils are healthy, that carbon can be stored in the ground. On farms, we can actually control whether that carbon is stored for a short time and then released back into the atmosphere or it’s stored for a much longer time.
Agriculture is responsible for at least a third of the carbon that’s in the atmosphere; every time we use a plow or till the soil, we are releasing carbon into the air. The synthetic fertilizers we apply have been created from fossil fuels, a process which involves burning carbon. There are really simple practices that can be implemented on farms. They include not tilling, keeping the soil covered, not using synthetic chemicals, and keeping living roots in the ground as long as possible, as well as integrating animals back onto farms to work more like a natural ecosystem.
There’s also an international initiative called 4 per 1000 that was started by the French government and introduced at the UN a couple years ago. It’s a coalition of governments worldwide that have committed to a 0.04 percent soil carbon increase on agricultural land every year. This is an international discussion, which is exciting, but we still need to talk about it more if we’re going to achieve widespread implementation. We’re facing this question: How do we make the conversation about drawing carbon out of the atmosphere through agriculture as prominent as that about alternative energy and phasing out fossil fuels?
There are a handful of companies, especially natural food brands, coming out with details about how they’re supporting soils in their supply chain. Consumers can be on the lookout for that, but it’s not common yet. In the meantime, the best thing we can do is localize as much as possible. That doesn’t mean that all local food is good, but when you’re shopping at the farmers’ market every week, it allows you to be in a very long, evolving conversation with the farmers and producers you’re purchasing directly from or at least with the people who work on their team.
Ask questions like:
- What do you do to support healthy soils on your farm?
- Are you tilling the soil? Every time we till, we essentially demolish microbial communities—soil’s microbiome. Just as disturbing our gut microbiome causes symptoms in our bodies, disturbing the soil microbiome causes symptoms in its ecosystem.
- Do you keep the soil covered? When soil’s covered, the living plant material is constantly pulling down carbon from the atmosphere, whereas all these soils we see around us are either dying because they’re basically in the sun or they’re releasing carbon.
- How do you fertilize? Are they using chemical inputs from a bottle? Or are they using animals? Are they composting onsite?
You do not have to be an expert! Very few of us are. But get comfortable with starting that conversation. I’ve had the privilege of sitting in the room with many large food brands over the years, and they listen to consumers. Asking questions and getting answers—either directly through the farmers in our communities or indirectly by getting selective about the brands we choose at the grocery store—makes a difference.
It’s about asking questions, and even going to visit your local farms. I’ve learned so much just by going on tours of the farms I purchase from on a regular basis. I’m starting to understand what’s easy, what’s hard, what it looks like to compost on the farm. How are cows integrated into a diverse farming system? What does that actually look like? Especially if you have children, it’s a great exploration. Farm trips are fun.
We’re focused on three audiences:
- Youth. We have a middle school curriculum and we’re now starting work on a high school career program discussing all the ways that you can go into regenerative agriculture and jobs healing our food system.
- Consumers. We put a lot of focus on consumer education. We have a book called Kiss the Ground: How the Food You Eat Can Reverse Climate Change, Heal Your Body & Save the World, and in the next year, we’ll be releasing a full-length documentary. We also create a lot of free, shareable tools, such as our purchasing guide, as well as online soil advocate trainings. And then we’re starting chapters for people to meet, discuss, and activate these tools in their own community.
- Farmers. We support farmers through soil health trainings, which—thanks to our scholarship fund—we can provide for free or at a very low cost. We’re raising that money in two ways: first, from foundations, families, offices, and corporations. And second, by working with local restaurants to put items on the menu that are sourced from the farmers we’re educating. Those menu items get marked up by $2, and that extra money goes to fund the next farmer in the program.
This movement has grown exponentially in the last three or four years. It’s really exciting. There are large corporations, government agencies, nonprofits, scientists, and farmers all over the world who are working on this initiative. I think, though, that for it to be a successful movement, we need to more than double or triple our force. It really requires consumer involvement, because the more of us—families, moms, youth, anybody on the planet who eats—who engage with this movement, the more policymakers, food companies, and farmers pay attention, and the more likely they are to rethink their policies. We need consumers to understand—and get excited about—what we’re all excited about.
There are so many ways to get engaged. Certainly, policy is one of them. Talking to your local representatives, going to city council meetings, and picking up the phone to call your state and federal representatives are really simple actions. It’s fairly easy, as well, to get involved more deeply in the food you’re purchasing. Go on a farm tour. Start shopping locally. If you want to do art that speaks about this topic, if you feel motivated to start a brand that sources from farmers using healthy soil practices—there are so many directions you can go.
To me, one of the most important things is to gather community locally. I think we’re used to finding one-size-fits-all solutions, but every community is different. A rural farming community dealing with toxicity from farm chemicals will likely be mobilized around something different than a neighborhood in New York City.
Here are some things I think everyone should do:
- Compost. Our food waste can become the fertilizer for the next healthy plant.
- Ask questions about where your food is coming from.
- Grow at least one plant at home. There’s something magical that happens when we care for even a little flower or a tiny cactus: We cultivate a direct relationship with our environment, and we realize that we’re part of a much greater system. If we can get humans to be stewards of this planet, we’ll live in a much different world.
Lauren Frances Tucker is the executive director of Kiss the Ground, a soil and regenerative agriculture nonprofit in Venice, California. Tucker holds a bachelor’s degree in international studies and psychology from American University. In addition to her work with Kiss the Ground, Tucker is a master gardener, and she studies regenerative agriculture and permaculture design.