Why Is No-one Talking About Soil?
Written by: Sofía Echániz
Soil: The organic mixture of compounds, organisms, and minerals laying right beneath our feet. But you might ask “What’s so special about soil?” We see it every day, we walk over it every day and we’re already well aware of its integral role in hosting vegetation. The reality is that soil has become less and less recognized as a necessity with more and more farmers leaning toward hydroponic initiatives to escape the expenses and environmental dependencies of conventional commercial farming. Over a century of intensive agriculture has led to a myriad of environmental impacts, including the degradation of the very soil we depend on to grow food. According to the United Nations, the remaining topsoil will be gone within the next 60 years - and desertified soils release increased concentrations of carbon into the atmosphere. Hydroponic farming, however, may not be the most efficient solution to the pollution, soil desertification, and other environmental impacts that have been caused by intensive agriculture, and here’s why!
By burning fossil fuels, carbon is continuously being released, contributing to the enhanced greenhouse effect. Since the industrial revolution, a legacy load of 1,000 gigatons has been released and remains within the atmosphere. Although emission mitigation is integral to reducing the impact of climate change, even if all emissions stopped today, it would take perhaps centuries for the gasses to dissipate, all the while they’d be contributing to rising global temperatures. Therefore, mitigation is not enough, and adaptation methods must be incorporated into anthropogenic and technocentric activity to sustainably reduce climate change. An example of this would be regenerative farming.
Regenerative farming is defined as a conservation and rehabilitation approach to farming systems, focussing on top soil regeneration, increased biodiversity, water cycle recovery, bio-sequestration and overall developing a sustainable symbiosis between earth and man’s domestic and industrial necessities. If mitigating our industries isn’t enough to stop (and reverse) climate change, then why not find a way to co-exist and enhance each other?
Regenerative farming uses bio-sequestration to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it within the soils to achieve drawdown (Project Drawdown: a concept/project developed by environmentalist Paul Hawken in 2014). Soil can hold about 2,500 gigatons of carbon, which is almost three times more than the carbon in our atmosphere and four times more than carbon found in vegetation stores. Achieving optimal drawdown will allow the cooling of Earth to take effect within 20 to 30 years, which means significant change can be achieved within a lifetime, and here’s how.
As we all know, vegetation absorbs carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, producing organic compounds, such as glucose and starch, allowing plant growth. In reality, vegetation acts as a gateway for carbon dioxide to traverse into the soil and stay there. Roughly 40% of carbon fuels produced by vegetation are sent to its roots and transferred to soil microorganisms, who in return provide plants with mineral-rich soils. Many microorganisms will also produce Glomalin, a carbon glue, which helps control the habitat beneath the ground. Glomalin may form pockets within the soil, allowing the control of air and water flows, while contributing to carbon fixation within the Calvin cycle (an integral part of photosynthesis). Its ability to aggregate soil allows natural mitigation of soil porosity and permeability, mediating the sequestration of carbon, and immobilizing nitrates and phosphates needed for plant growth and health. Furthermore, Glomalin may glue together soil particles, decreasing its vulnerability to erosion and therefore desertification, and protecting the remaining topsoil we have. Therefore, the more carbon stored in our soils, the healthier our soil and crop growth, and the less carbon dioxide increasing solar radiation in our atmosphere. It’s a win-win situation.
When asked about the most fundamental, entry-level steps into sustainable farming, environmentalist, activist and active regenerative farmer of Cobb Hill Farms suggested that the easiest, and most overlooked methodology was the establishment of winter cover crops.
Monocultures decrease an ecosystem’s complexity, causing a decrease in its resilience. This would therefore prevent the ecosystem from avoiding tipping points, causing extreme and irreparable damage. Furthermore, from a farmer’s point of view, a monoculture leaves their crop vulnerable to natural disasters and hence leaves their income dependent on an ever-worsening climate. A polyculture cover crop during the winter season will contribute to regenerating the soil after harvest, while acting as a buffer to prevent soil erosion from wind and water, protecting topsoil and its minerals and nutrients. This in return would increase crop yield and therefore increase income.
However, like many scientists, Cobb Hill believes that tilling (otherwise known as the churning of topsoil in preparation for sowing in the spring) is the biggest contributor to the destruction of our soils and disruption of its habitat. Tilling breaks up soil structure, speeds up the loss of organic matter, destroys integral microorganisms, and leaves the now bare soil vulnerable to erosion (and desertification). In addition to destroying soil’s capability to regenerate itself and sustain life, tilling also releases high concentrations of carbon dioxide.
Using the OCO-2 NASA model, the effect of tilling during harvest in the spring is visualized with an enormous increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. During the spring, however, the power of vegetation cover is demonstrated by the dramatic decrease in carbon concentrations, indicating the importance of vegetation cover in addressing the climate crisis, and the negative impact tilling has on our climate.
If the solution seems so obvious, why is no one pursuing it? Why does no one seem to know about it? Despite Regenerative Agriculture being introduced in the late 1980s, the … has gone relatively unnoticed by the public, with government initiatives only truly beginning to incentivize it in the early 2000s.
The agricultural industry, specifically, in MEDCs, was constructed around policy and social infrastructure around the 1960s, following the events of World War II. Rather than encouraging farmers to grow crops sustainably, it incentivizes farmers to grow monocultures through large subsidies while encouraging large commercial farms to use detrimental, intensive farming methods, such as the heavy use of fertilizers, pesticides, monoculture, and most importantly: tilling.
The Inflation Reduction Act, passed on August 16th, 2022, does take a step in the right direction, however still lacks the education and initiatives for smaller, local farms to participate in sustainable farming methods. Therefore, it is important to continue to fight for the future of the planet and of our species and not let our guard down. Participate in protests, and organizations; donate; source food from sustainable farms. There is so much we can do, on a small scale, that can have large, rippling, impacts. Within our own school community, you could join the Environmental Club, propose initiatives that spark change, enroll in an IB ESS class, or host a fundraiser for a local organization. Having the knowledge on how to turn the tide of climate change isn’t enough - acting on it is.
Hille, Karl. “NASA Computer Model Provides a New Portrait of Carbon Dioxide.” NASA, NASA, 17 Nov. 2014, https://www.nasa.gov/press/goddard/2014/november/nasa-computer-model-provides-a-new-portrait-of-carbon-dioxide/.
Farms and Cohousing, Cobb Hill, and Sofia K Echaniz. “Regenerative Farming in Vermont.” 21 July 2022.
Rutherford, Jill. Environmental Systems and Societies. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Soil Quality Information Sheet Soil Quality Indicators ... - USDA. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs142p2_052820.pdf.
Does Glomalin Hold Your Farm Together? - USDA ARS. https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/30640500/Glomalin/Glomalinbrochure.pdf.
21, Renee Cho |February, et al. “Can Soil Help Combat Climate Change?” State of the Planet, 6 Feb. 2019, https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2018/02/21/can-soil-help-combat-climate-change/#:~:text=The%20Earth's%20soils%20contain%20about,all%20living%20plants%20and%20animals.
Hawkin, Paul. Project Drawdown, 2014, https://drawdown.org/.
Tickell, Josh and Rebecca, director. Kiss the Ground. Netflix, 2020.