Soil Health on the Main Stage, Systemic Solutions in the Background

Posted on Tuesday, October 6th, 2020 by

Wildfires are raging all along the west. Hurricanes in the east. Snow quickly followed a heat wave in the middle of the country. With growing national recognition of climate change’s role in exacerbating the conditions that have led to earlier and longer seasons of destruction, the time is right to lift up tried and true solutions.

Recently released on Netflix, “Kiss the Ground” does just that: it focuses on the importance of cultivating healthy soils and brings it to a broad audience. The movie doesn’t just dive into the microbiology of soil and soil carbon interactions, it also covers the four main principles of soil health: increasing diversity, minimizing soil disturbance, keeping above ground covered and below ground active at all times, and animal integration.

This overview of soil health mechanics and related impacts for our environmental and human health is not only easy to digest, but fun and cute, with tidbits you’ll remember, like soil microbes dancing to “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate. At the core lies the message that we each have the power to do something about this and it will take these individual commitments, coupled together.

Daniella, Jepson Prairie Organics, showing finished compost to legislative staff.
Daniella, Jepson Prairie Organics, showing finished compost to legislative staff.

Just as soil contains an ecosystem of microbes, nutrients and critters that need to be attended to and considered together, the solutions to climate change are also an ecosystem with different aspects that deserve attention as well.

Unfortunately, the too simple message of soil health as the solution to climate change obscures the multi-faceted approached that is needed. Similarly, attributing the destruction of our nation’s soils to a lack of knowledge and individual will-power ignores the legacy of market pressures and federal policy failures that have designed and perpetuated the industrial system we recognize today. Instead, the narrative puts the soil depletion onus on the farmer, propagating the false and ultimately harmful dichotomy of “good” versus “bad” farmer. Large, chemical-dependent farms are precisely the systems that need to be brought into the movement: alienation does not advance the shared goal of regenerating soil.

The brief mention of politics and programs does not paint a picture of what public programs are available to farmers – whether federal or state-level. Instead, the “politics” around soil health and climate change is only briefly hinted at with mention of a single meeting during COP21 in 2015 that garnered no U.S. commitments to agricultural solutions. Certainly, climate change is a global issue and requires global coordination. It also requires local action. Instead of noting the range of public conservation programs provided by the federal government’s 90-year-old Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) on which many farmers depend to underwrite the cost of conservation practices, the USDA is named as the largest threat to the viability of regenerative agriculture.

Also left unrecognized is the indigenous knowledge and practices that tended to soil health long before the first settler colonies existed. Many throughout the movie mention that this seemingly newly discovered climate change solution isn’t new, if only because soil and microbes have been interacting for millennia. Nowhere is it acknowledged the indigenous people and cultures who have been implementing these practices and thriving long before celebrities were.

What could have made the conversation more robust, albeit nuanced? A systems-approach to the agricultural solutions to climate change: soil health is just one aspect. Breaking it down to the individual piece does not solve the whole and can invite too narrow (often market-based) solutions (read: corporate carbon markets).

Additionally, a discussion about the accessibility of these practices – both economically and socially – would have rounded out references to differing adoption rates. It’s not simply a lack of knowledge. Farmers are experts in their field. Countless societal and emotional pressures weigh on a decision to change practices, to change your identity as a farmer, without even factoring in the high likelihood of financial instability, especially when extreme weather changes related to the climate crisis make the business even more risky.

Steven Sinton Ranch in Templeton, California. Photo Credit: USDA NRCS

These solutions need public investment – that is, not for profit – and the technical resources to help farmers adapt and shift. Examples of these financial and technical resources exist, not only at the federal level and in California, but in many other states.

It’s not only awareness and individual choice that will help solve the climate crisis: it takes all the players, big and small, to engage in organized advocacy to influence policy. Systemic change is possible only if there are public investments in agriculture’s climate solutions that are accessible, just, multi-beneficial and support the business of farming.

Most of actionable items offered in the movie are primarily relevant to those who control wide swaths of soil or live in a city with composting haul service and/or processing infrastructure or can compost on their own. The movie suggests that consumers can make more conscious choices to eat food that is regeneratively produced, but in fact they typically have insufficient information to do so.  And none of these solutions will address our climate crisis at the speed and scale we need. Only policy and significant public and private investments in nature-based solutions can do that.

So what actions can you take? You can vote for candidates who are serious about climate policy and understand agriculture’s powerful solutions. You can ask your congressional representatives to co-sponsor the Agricultural Resilience Act (H.R. 5861). You can call all your elected California state representatives and tell them you support re-investment the state’s Climate Smart Agriculture programs, which were largely de-funded during the pandemic.

The solutions exist and have existed for a long time. We just need to put our money where our mouth is.

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