Marisa Morby logo

Design & Nature Reimagined: Can the soil save us? (Part 2)

Hello again! This week we're continuing with Part 2 on how the soil can save us, based on the documentary Kiss the Ground. Previously we talked about the importance of soil and the scary realization that desertification was expanding on a global level. The open question for all of us is; what can we do about it? In countries all around the world, scientists and citizens are coming together to find new ways of farming. The predominantly western or European model of farming that I talked about previously, where people would section off different areas of land for single crop use, doesn't work. Indigenous cultures in the Americas already knew this didn't work, and it's only now that we're starting to listen.

How we fix it

This can be achieved through no-tilling practices, cover crop planting, better pasture management, and regenerative agriculture. But doing this requires a lot of education and convincing to teach our farmers, our government, and consumers why this is the path forward. There are already some groups that are working on different forms of reducing carbon by keeping it in the soil or drawing it back down into the soil.

Groups that are putting the work in

La Sarthe, a village of 256 in France is committed to making this change. Together they started an initiative called the 4 per 1000 initiative. The goal of the initiative is to get agreements from local governments across the world to increase carbon sequestration of their soil by 4% every year for the next 1000 years. Some countries that have agreed to participate are Germany, Japan, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Vietnam, the Netherlands, and many more.

Surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly)The US is not participating in this on a government level, but many private companies, non-profits, and farming organizations in the USA are working with this group to drive the initiative in different states. China and India haven't joined at all, as of June 2021. This is unfortunate for all of us since the USA, China, and India are the three biggest emitters of CO2 in the world. Another initiative that's working to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is Project Drawdown. Their goal is to reduce sources of emissions, support carbon sinks (which is where improved agricultural practices come in), and improve society through health and education measures.

Because we've pumped 1000 billion tons (gigaton) into the atmosphere we've created what scientists are calling a Legacy Load of carbon. That means there's just too much carbon in the atmosphere to keep the system running in the same way as it was before, which is why we see our climate patterns changing on a global level. So this means that we can't just reduce emissions and everything will be okay. Instead, we have to reduce emissions AND sequester the carbon through "drawdown" techniques, like planting in ways that pull the carbon out of the air and produce a year to year reduction in carbon in the atmosphere.

The exciting part about these initiatives is that if we start now, in 20 or 30 years we will see that impact. I can see that impact in my lifetime, and that feels very hopeful.

How farming can fix it

Regenerative farming is a farming practice that draws down the most carbon and helps us repair the damage we've done. Regenerative agriculture grows more food per acre and is possible with tools we have today. Regenerative agriculture takes a conservation and rehabilitation approach to farming. It focuses on preserving and caring for the topsoil, improving the water cycle, increasing biodiversity, and increasing climate resilience.

In traditional European / Western farming practices, we till the land, which releases carbon by disturbing or destroying the microorganisms in the soil. By not tilling, we can preserve the microorganisms in the top soil. John Deere even sells a no till drill that lets farmers plant without tilling.Food Forest.

Non tilled soil holds more water. That improves microorganisms. That improves plant growth. That improves microclimate. That creates more rain, causing a virtuous cycle.

Preserving the top soil also means planting cover crop so that the top soil is protected. Cover crop is one way to increase biodiversity as well. This helps us naturally restore the water supply. Multi species cover crop. Enhances the life and function of the soil.

Increasing biodiversity means a couple more things in regenerative farming, though. First, it can involve adding additional types of crops so that instead of a farm yielding one crop, it can yield many. One farmer in the _Kiss the Ground _documentary mentioned that he was growing 19 separate crops, which also reduced his risk because if he had a bad year he has multiple crops to fall back on. Ranching in regenerative farming also helps with biodiversity. Holistic management, by rotating where the cows graze, farmers are able to better care for the soil, rotate their crops, and raise livestock.

Solid grassland helps create regeneration by stabilizing the soil, too. So just letting things go wild and back to nature also works.

In a lot of ways, plant subsidies in the USA are killing us. Farmers price guarantees for certain crops (corn, hay, soy), but it's turning our soil to dust.

Regenerative ranching builds resiliency into the ecosystem. Most of the land managed by farmers is owned by someone other than the farmer. In _Kiss the Ground, _they think that by switching to regenerative agriculture, farmers could increase their profit by $100 billion annually.

What regenerative farming can do

When we focus on regeneration, we can do amazing things. First, look at these pictures from the Loess Plateau Regeneration. Over 14 years they reversed 35000 sq km of land where the soil had turned to dirt. And not only did this create soil and bring life back to this area, but having land that could be used again helped raise people out of poverty.

The CommonLand Foundation is also working on regenerating landscapes across the world. By doing this at scale we can improve the soil globally.

What can you do to save our soils?

I don't often put too much pressure on individuals to change their own habits because it's really a systemic problem that needs to be solved at a government and global level.

But for this, there are some individual choices we can make that can help. This can be as simple as doing more careful food planning. If you have a yard, you can also compost at home and use it in your garden. Our choices here can definitely make a difference, and each bit of soil we create or preserve helps us toward our goal!

Before and after view of the Loess Plateau. The before picture shows a barren hill with dirt and no plant life. The after photo on the right shows a bright green hill covered in plants

The Loess Plateau before regenerative farming and after:

Join the Design & Nature Reimagined Newsletter