Updated: Jul 8, 2018
Above: This is an unfiltered image — the color is caused by suspended dirt in the air. This shot was taken in the middle of the day, across from a timber seller near Gondar, Ethiopia. (Photo by B. Lorraine Smith / 2016)
I have a hunch — or perhaps it’s a wish — that we will look back on 2018 as the year we got very, very dirty.
Let me explain.
Dirt has gotten a bit of a, well, a dirty name over the years. Dirt needs to be cleaned off of things — shoes, floors, clothing. “Dirty” jokes suggest a base, sexual twist to the humor. In a gossip-session, it can refer to the ultra-negative or scandalous elements of the tale, the “dirt” on what really happened.
It’s too bad dirt connotes these negatives, given that it’s one of the building blocks of life on earth. It’s time we revisit our notions about dirt — literally the soil beneath our feet — to see it as something to be revered, explored with curiosity, and, at all costs, preserved.
Doing so will be one important antidote to the dangers we’ve caused by ignoring the real dirt on dirt, putting humanity in peril and potentially dragging a slew of other species down with us — into the dirt, which, I might add, will likely continue to exist in abundance long after we’re gone. This probably sounds dire, but it’s the dirty truth.
Earth, not just the swiftly tilting planet we’re on, but soil — that other “earth” — has been trying to inform us of an existential reality for ages. It’s time we listened.
There are two interrelated ways in which soil is key to our survival. We have known for millennia about the first one — the importance of soil as it pertains to producing healthy food — although we haven't always governed ourselves in accordance with reality on this score. And now we are just beginning to pick up the important signals on how soil is a critical piece of the climate solution, too.
It’s high time to put our ears to the ground and listen.
Dinner Bells Ringing
The most obvious way we are dirt-dependent is in relation to food. The vast majority of our calories are generated by soil, whether we process these calories by eating plants, by eating animals that eat plants, or by eating plant-eating animal by-products such as eggs and milk. Without soil — or more specifically, without the nutrients contained in soil — most of us would starve.
There is no such thing as a farm without soil.
I recall my farming friends only slightly ironically referring to me and my urban ilk as “cidiots.” City folk occasionally visiting the farmers’ market and pruning houseplants does not really constitute being attuned to the importance of soil. As we increasingly urbanize our society, with over half of the global population in cities already (a number expected to be as much as two-thirds by 2050), we will need to get real about dirt.
Farmers are the ultimate translators of what the soil is telling us. There isn’t just one message, of course, and like the Tower of Babel, there is a lot of noisy chatter about the best ways to farm different crops in different regions. Emerging from this noise are encouraging signs of active evolution towards ever-better practices on the part of those who make their living from the land.
Thankfully, there are farmers poised to help the rest us hear what the soil is saying, even though they’re pretty busy with stuff besides putting themselves on social media and messaging about soil. Some of these “soil whisperers” have gained world-renown for their perspectives on best practices for soil health, creating the potential for better yields, improved nutrition and improved climate impacts. People like Gabe Brown and Allan Savory are practically household names among those following the regenerative agriculture hashtags.
There are many other non-famous, hard-working farmers and agriculturalists striving to learn more about soil, and who are sharing what they are finding. They are dependent on the success of their experiments for their livelihoods.
One example is an Ohio farmer named Greg Campbell, who started a YouTube channel in 2012. In his videos, he shares details about switching his practice from tilling his soy and corn, to the use of cover crops and no-till, while also reducing his overall pesticide use.
Campbell’s YouTube channel is hardly the polished effort that angles to get city folk like me to part with more of our grocery dollars on produce from renowned “non-industrial food production oases” such as Polyface Farms. Far from it.
Above: Screenshot from Greg Campbell’s 2017 video, “The Cost of No-Till + Cover Crops vs. Tillage - REVISED 4/17/2017” in which he offers details about comparative costs of a cropping system of no-till plus cover crops, versus tillage.
No, instead Campbell puts his YouTube energy into spelling out the savings of the shifts he’s making, and why some shifts are more easily adopted than others. He also recounts the challenges of juggling his attendance of seminars (to learn new things), with managing the physical realities of running a farm — plus dealing with the need to improve road-safety habits in communities where farm tractors share roadways with faster moving vehicles. So, as mentioned, Campbell isn’t producing slick video, but he is providing — translating! — useful, direct information about soil for anyone with an internet connection.
Here’s one more gem that’s worth watching if you’re trying to see why soil health matters beyond the farm gate. This video, “Differences in Tilled and No Till Soils,” reminds me of the kind of science experiments we used to do in grade school. Only unlike my childhood journey of discovery as to how different colored substances travelled through celery stalks, this experiment could spell life or death for a lot of humans some day, as well as for various other species that depend on ecosystems affected by farming.
Above: Screenshot from “Differences in Tilled and No Till Soils”, which illustrates how tilled soils lose their structure, and are therefore less able to retain moisture and any added nutrients, such as phosphorous. The result is a lot of chemical run-off.
This video didn’t exactly get a special mention at the Academy Awards recently. One commenter even complains of feeling seasick watching this product of jiggly camera work — but the content is extremely useful if you’re interested in hearing what the soil is saying.
And, again, we really do need to pick up those signals.
Soil: Not Just for Dinner Anymore
There is a deeper awakening underway about the importance of soil health that goes far beyond direct impacts on farmer livelihoods and crops, as well as beyond our dining preferences and caloric needs.
The awakening is this: we are beginning to grasp the role of soils in relation to climate change.
This new understanding of a key aspect of climate change is connected to two things. The first is the fact that many modern farming practices release significant green house gases into the atmosphere. For example, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
Various soil management practices lead to increased nitrogen in the soil, including the application of synthetic and organic fertilizers, the growth of nitrogen-fixing crops, the drainage of organic soil, and irrigation practices. This results in emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.
Livestock, especially ruminants such as cattle, produce methane, or CH4, another greenhouse gas contributing to climate change, as part of their normal digestive functioning, a process is called enteric fermentation.
Manure from livestock can also contribute to CH4 and N2O emissions. Different manure treatment and storage methods affect how much of these greenhouse gases are produced.
The second important impact of agriculture on climate change is (to date) less discussed, but awareness is now on the rise. It relates to the recognition that agriculture has tremendous potential not just to reduce emissions by adapting the above-noted practices, but to actually draw down CO2 from the atmosphere and to retain a carbon in the soils.
We are talking here not simply of halting climate change – but actually reversing it!
A significant number of the solutions outlined in Paul Hawken’s seminal work on reversing global warming, the 2017 book Drawdown, are predicated on the role of agriculture, agro-forestry and other soil-based activities. And in Kristen Ohlson’s 2014 book, The Soil Will Save Us, she provides a thorough overview of the evolution of our relationship with soil, articulating the size of the opportunity for effective soil management in solving the climate crisis we have created. The following quote completely changed my perspective:
“The rates of biomass production we are currently observing in this [improved cropping] system have the capability to capture enough CO2 (50 tons CO2/acre) to offset all anthropogenic CO2 emissions on less than 11 percent of world cropland. Over twice this amount of land is fallow at any time worldwide.”
All Together Now
My reading of these two books coincided with two sojourns in Ethiopia, where deforestation and overgrazing in some parts is severe and quite obvious, even to the casual observer. It is so severe that the topsoil literally lifts into the air occasionally, grounding flights (as mine was shortly after I shot the banner photo, above) and darkening skies in an eerie way, even on days of full sunshine. Subsistence farming is the norm in many parts of the country, and the land has been continually degraded by extractive forestry and agricultural methods.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see deforestation, erosion and poor farming practices as a problem connected to poverty in developing countries — something that, if we only throw enough aid money at it, we can conquer. But another remarkable statistic from Ohlson’s book reminds me that this is not a problem relating to developed vs. developing country economics; it is indicative of a complex accrual of human habits that we are not seeing in context:
“Of the total global deforestation that’s taken place over the millennia, 75 percent occurred before 1850.”
In other words, the picturesque fields of Wales are as deforested as the highlands of Ethiopia, and the extractive farming practices of the American corn belt leave as much room for improvement as the deforesting impacts of farming at the hands of the smallholder farmers of East Africa. We are talking about a global challenge here, one we must all strive to understand and solve.
Since reading those books and walking through the highlands of Ethiopia — coincidentally around the same time those YouTube videos explaining better soil management practices were posted — the local guide who showed me around has started a tree nursery that is already profitably providing native seedlings to local businesses and hotels, and he’s doing so in a manner that will cultivate increased soil health and plant biodiversity. This entrepreneurial effort evolved independently, however there is a significant movement in Ethiopia to bring back forests, and by extension, increased precipitation as well as healthier soils and more promising farmer livelihoods.
And so this may be wishful thinking, but I have a feeling that 2018 is the year we pull our heads out of the (nutrient-depleted) sand and start making soil health a major priority. If a modern, industrial scale farmer in Ohio can, late in his farming career, post practical, insightful ideas about converting to more regenerative agriculture practices and receive over 90,000 views of his posted insights; if a young man from a village in the highlands of Ethiopia sees the economic opportunity of starting a native tree nursery; if city-dwellers like me wake up to the fact that all the urban economic “centers” in the world cannot be viable without healthy soils, we might just be able to continue the human experiment on planet earth for a few more hundred years.
Dirt is the stuff that grounds us, and it’s what grants us life and the potential to thrive. The time is ripe to roll up our proverbial sleeves and get our hands dirty.
Above: Bees, fruit trees, medicinal plants and more thrive among the soils of Tena Kabena, an urban agriculture organization in the heart of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where local volunteers and students tend a remarkably diverse city farm that is merely steps away from derelict and relatively barren parts of the city. (Photo by B. Lorraine Smith /2016)