Digging Up More On Dirt: If You Love The Earth, You Gotta Love Its Soil

soil.jpgAs we say in this issue’s other story (“Four Ways…”), Earth Day is approaching, so let’s learn the latest on what’s under our feet: soil—a vast ecosystem of air, water, minerals, nutrients, organic matter, macrobiota, microbiota, plants and more that is one of the main reasons why we are alive (think The Martian). Amidst the start of an election season where food is barely a discussion point, it feels extra important this year to pay homage to the alpha and omega of our nutrients.

Soil feeds us. That’s an obvious benefit, but nurturing plants that fill our bellies in only the start. New research asserts that soil itself can actually help heal us. Some medical professionals believe that eating seasonally and locally helps promote healthy gut microbiota because local dirt carries probiotics that have adapted to local conditions. When our microbiome is happy, we are happy. Exposure to soil protects against allergies, strengthens the immune system, and even improves brain function, as evidenced in The Dirt Cure written by Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein. Check out her interview in the NY Times to learn more.

As we continue to understand how we can prevent, reverse, adapt and be resilient as we face climate change, soil health stands front and center. Carbon farming, as it’s been called, grows crops in a way that explicitly stores carbon in the soil. It is hardly difficult—mankind has been doing it for thousands of years. Researchers estimate that agriculture is responsible for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, but if widely adopted carbon farming could absorb that carbon as well as other carbon emissions, potentially slowly down climate change. In a recent Washington Post Op-ed, Michael Pollan and Debbie Barker explain the potential of what they refer to as “regenerative farming:”

Some scientists project that 75 to 100 parts per million of CO2 could be drawn out of the atmosphere over the next century if existing farms, pastures and forestry systems were managed to maximize carbon sequestration. That’s significant when you consider that CO2 levels passed 400 ppm this spring. Scientists agree that the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 ppm. Regenerative farming would also increase the fertility of the land, making it more productive and better able to absorb and hold water, a critical function especially in times of climate-related floods and droughts. Carbon-rich fields require less synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and generate more productive crops, cutting farmer expenses.

Carbon or “regenerative” farming can be an economic benefit to farmers, too.  A recent New York Times article by Stephanie Strom explains that it can be profitable to farmers in terms of increasing yields and reducing overall costs. Brian Barth of Modern Farmer explains that farmers may stand to make even more money off of the market for carbon offsets. And the USDA has recently developed a tool that will help farmers calculate their potential earnings (but it may be a slow process before it really takes off):

Dr. Adam Chambers, an air quality scientist with the USDA who helped to develop the COMET-Farm tool, says the data it provides should pave the way for farmers to monetize carbon sequestration practices as the carbon market matures. How quickly the market develops depends largely on political forces—climate-friendly California became the first state to institute a mandatory cap-and-trade program in 2012, but if the federal government were to follow suit, the value and trading volume of the carbon market could heat up quickly.

In the last 150 years we have lost half of the world’s top soils.  Due to this type of erosion in the last 40 years alone, 30 percent of the world's arable land

has become unproductive. Some researchers estimate that mankind destroys 30 football fields worth of soil e very minute!

Luckily there are actions that we can take personally that will help conserve and build soil in your own backyard, in your community and in our country. If you are as excited as we are about conserving and building this precious, life-giving ecosystem, then jump over to our Earth Day Pledge (new title and link to go here) to commit to doing more.

Resources

To learn more about soil and its “health,” check out some of our previous Wellness Warrior articles:

Other strong references include:

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