What if the answer to stopping climate change was lying right under our feet? What if one of the most revolutionary acts you could do was to plant a garden? Well, research is starting to show this might just be true.
To bring attention to the importance of plain old dirt, the United Nations declared 2015 “The Year of Soil.” To highlight how important soil, is the first International Soil Not Oil Conference will be held September 4 and 5 in Northern California’s city of Richmond. Delegates from around the world will gather to hear from Dr. Vandana Shiva, a global leader in the fight to protect farmers and the food web; John Roulac, activist and founder of super food company Nutiva; professors from UC Berkeley; and other leaders in this growing soil movement.
Why is soil so important? Both humans and animals depend on it almost exclusively for food. The fiber that clothes and shelters us is grown in it, as well as the fuels that power our cars and heat our homes. Not only that, but a study published in the journal Health Psychology reveals that gardening may actually make you happier, due to serotonin increase from a common bacterium (M. vaccae) often found in soil. And soil plays a vital role in the carbon cycle.
Oil, gas, and other fossil fuels are decayed plant material that grew in soil millions of years ago. When we burn fossil fuels, we release stored carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere, which has knocked the Earth’s systems out of balance and created changes to our climate. It took the planet the last 5 million years to get the right proportions of atmospheric gases to sustain life as we know it. Now scientists are seeing radical changes much sooner then anticipated. An August 5, 2015, article in Rolling Stone, “The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here,” describes places around the world that already suffer the deadly havoc of record heat, rising sea levels, and prolonged droughts. The consequences have been unprecedented.
So, what can be done? Drastically cutting our fossil fuel use will be key to helping heal the delicate eco-systems we depend on. We need to put less into the atmosphere and find ways to take out the over-abundance we have put there. John Roulac is among the many calling for us to de-carbonize our energy system by implementing more renewables, energy efficiency, and carbon farming.
This brings us back to soil. The Earth stores carbon, or carbon sinks as they are called, in three major places: the atmosphere, the ocean, and the soil. The first two are reaching saturation. Most of us understand the effect increased carbon — in the form of greenhouse gases — is having in our atmosphere. And oceans around the world are experiencing unusual die-offs due to acidification from increased carbon absorbed in the waters. What food we don’t produce from soil mostly comes from the sea. No matter where you live in the world, the die-offs in the ocean should be of great concern.
This means our main hope may be right beneath us. Our salvation may lie in the soil.
The Soil Not Oil Conference will be looking at Regenerative Agriculture as a local solution to this global problem. Through permaculture techniques, such as no-till farming, composting, planned grazing, and cover crops, farmers can see higher yields with less chemical inputs while increasing their soil’s fertility and capturing more carbon in it. Carbon Farming it is called. These and other techniques can also help the ground retain water more efficiently. We can reduce the levels of carbon in the atmosphere while producing healthier foods, combat the drought, aid farmers, and reverse climate change!
At the end of August, the Venice organization Kiss the Ground sent over 20,000 signatures to Sacramento urging legislators to allocate $160 million from California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to help educate about soil and put sustainable practices into play at the state level. This would include $20 million to support Governor Brown’s Healthy Soil Initiative and other pending bills that would bring money and education to regenerative farming, composting, and carbon farming. According to Finian Makepeace, cofounder of Kiss the Ground, this is the first time we have seen a number of bills at the state level looking into carbon farming and regenerative agriculture.
“We have a responsibility as citizens in our current system to help out and figure out what needs to be done,” says Makepeace. He feels there is much that can be done by individuals, like you and me, at a local level. San Francisco and Alameda counties are great examples of communities leading the way in composting and other important measures. Much research has been done, and by simply sharing this with your elected officials, you can help make a big difference to fight climate change and create a healthier food system. Kiss the Ground can be a resource for this information.
For those who wish to dig deeper into this topic, the Soil Not Oil Conference will be a great opportunity. Those not able to attend in person can learn much at soilnotoilcoalition.org. Kiss the Ground, with the support of Nutiva and other allies, have produced an informative short film, The Soil Story, that details the issue and what can be done. Carbon Underground and Organic Consumers are other organizations to look into for a better grasp of this topic.
Healthy soil may be our greatest chance for a healthy future. What if we could reverse climate change? What if we can find a way to feed the 7 billion people calling Earth home? What if more time in the garden could replace anti-depressants? What if the answer is right beneath our feet? It seems like worthy endeavors to explore, especially right now during The Year of Soil.
Hannah Apricot Eckberg is an environmental journalist who was born and raised in Santa Barbara County. She has studied permaculture for many years and plays in the dirt as much as possible.