Full disclosure: I am no soil expert. I fancy myself more of an expert on water quality, having grown up with a water well-drilling father who was, in fact, a soil tester and certified geologist. I was the kid who did science projects on water-quality testing and kept a pH test kit in my school bag, mostly because I liked watching the litmus paper turn colors in the water fountain.
So how does a localist with an interest in clean water get so passionate about soil? Maybe because, after 10 years of living in New Mexico and watching our topsoil blow away in 40-mile-per-hour winds every spring, I have come to understand that soil is an important component to our food and water supply. I’ve been working deeply in the local food system movement for years now, but soil has never once entered into my conversations. Until very recently, that is.
In early February, on an unseasonably warm day for the California Bay area, about 30 localists, ranchers, farmers and impact investors met on the TomKat Ranch, in Pescadero, to learn how to sequester carbon in soil and heal our climate while growing better cattle and food for our local food systems. I will confess, the first few hours I walked around the ranch listening to stories about their 100 percent grass-fed beef operation and how they brought back native grass by allowing cattle to free forage and frequently rotating them, thereby regenerating the healthy grassland and reducing their carbon footprint on the environment. I wondered out loud, “What’s this got to do with local economies?”
Turns out, soil—composed of minerals and microorganisms—can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes in just one teaspoon. What we put into our soil or, on the flipside, take out of it, matters. Depleting soil of these nutrients with pesticides and chemicals or allowing them to simply blow away in the wind makes for a very unhealthy environment for you, me and the food we eat—from our beef to our poultry to our veggies and dairy. This all makes for an unhealthy food system, too, as we rely more on large-scale farming, where chemicals are dumped into the soil and pesticides are sprayed to keep the crops “healthy,” and then that produce is trucked thousands of miles across the country.
Plants need soil to grow, and soil is the basis for everything you and I need to thrive: food, flora, fiber, fuel. I felt like I’d somehow skipped this Soil 101 class as a kid. Why didn’t I remember this? Why had I taken soil for granted all these years and not thought about the how of my food grown locally? Of course, I know that organic or sustainable farming practices are better for me and the environment. Of course, I know that grass-fed beef is better for me and the environment. Of course, I knew all these things. What I did not know was just how very depleted our country’s soil is and what some ranchers and farmers are doing to holistically manage their production to regenerate the soil and sequester carbon. It already holds 2.5 trillion (with a T) tons of carbon, and with effective land management we can build carbon in soil by 1 to 3 billion tons per year, equaling approximately 3.4 to 11 billion tons of carbon dioxide, or one-third of all human-generated carbon emissions, annually. We all know about the drought we’ve been experiencing in the Southwest and, with temperatures rising and megadroughts perhaps not far off, the result will be less water in the soil, which means less food, loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitats, all resulting in weaker local economies. Because soil sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and stores it deep underground, it can be our best tool to fight climate change. Through photosynthesis, plants transfer carbon to the soil, acting as a “carbon sink” that simultaneously boosts agriculture productivity, purifies our air and stores water. According to Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition, the carbon cycle is “the mother of all ecosystems services. This process does eight times the work of all industrial energy used by humans.”
So what does it all mean? This year is the International Year of Soils, and many local, national and worldwide organizations are partnering to spread the gospel of soil. It takes partners and education to turn our soils healthy again. Think about this, from Carbon Cycle Institute’s home webpage:
The climate-beneficial carbon cycle solutions championed by CCI cannot be successfully scaled unless CCI’s development partners and allies—including ranchers, conservation, and climate agencies—clearly understand the fundamentals of the carbon cycle, its relationship to soil and climate change, and the direct implications for our global climate. In response, CCI developed and implemented a “Carbon Cycle 1.0” education and outreach strategy to promote carbon cycle literacy, targeting key constituencies, decision-makers, and thought leaders in the fields of climate change and sustainable agriculture.
A report released recently at the 3rd Scientific Conference of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Cancún, Pastoralism and the Green Economy—a Natural Nexus?, highlights holistic land management’s role in safeguarding natural capital across a quarter of the world’s land area, stating that it “contributes to water regulation and biodiversity conservation. It also provides other goods such as high-value food products.”
Without healthy soil, we cannot have healthy local economies. It seems so simple, and it is, so let’s not overthink it. I’m urging you, environmentalists, climate-change activists, foodies, home gardeners, urban farmers—eaters all—to care about soil and how things are grown in our local economy, not just where. Learn about healthy soils; ask for grass-fed, not just grass-finished. Ask if your farmer practices holistic land management and is a steward of the land, not just growing your vegetables for your farmers’ market salad. Food grown and cattle raised in the holistic way on land where the soil is repaired for generations to come can be better for us and the environment. Suddenly, my burger tastes a whole lot better, and the air smells a little sweeter.
Vicki Pozzebon is a localist, writer and cultivator. She is a BALLE Fellow and the author of the forthcoming book For the Love of Local: Confessions from the Heart of Community. Read her blog, The Local Voice, at vickipozzebon.com and follow her on Twitter: @vickipozzebon
To learn more about the International Year of Soils:
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has information and resources and this excellent infographic:
TomKat Ranch and Left Coast Grass-fed Beef
Soil Carbon Coalition
Carbon Cycle Institute
Great books to read:
Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Nimanl, Chelsea Green Publishing
“Grounded in empirical scientific data and with living examples from around the world, Defending Beef builds a comprehensive argument that cattle can help to build carbon-sequestering soils to mitigate climate change, enhance biodiversity, help prevent desertification, and provide invaluable nutrition.”
The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet, Kristin Ohlson, Rodale, Inc.
“Thousands of years of poor farming and ranching practices—and, especially, modern industrial agriculture—have led to the loss of up to 80 percent of carbon from the world’s soils. That carbon is now floating in the atmosphere, and even if we stopped using fossil fuels today, it would continue warming the planet. In The Soil Will Save Us, journalist and best-selling author Kristin Ohlson makes an elegantly argued, passionate case for “our great green hope”—a way in which we can not only heal the land but also turn atmospheric carbon into beneficial soil carbon—and potentially reverse global warming.”