3 min read + watch
In support of Earth Day 2021, we are discussing the soil crisis, the importance of understanding carbon and the part it plays in the future of food systems. When it comes to the role of carbon on Earth, there’s often a lot of confusion. We breathe the gas out, and plants breathe it in. We also make carbon by burning fossil fuels. But carbon isn’t bad, it is in fact the basis for all life on Earth and desperately needs protecting.
The human body is made up of 18.5% carbon and this all comes from eating vegetation and things that eat vegetation. This is because in soil, carbon makes up 50% of soil organic matter and is vital to its health. Yet, most modern agricultural operations focus on managing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and ignore carbon. Only half of the original organic matter remains in most modern cultivated soils.
The way we manage land and agriculture is moving even more carbon from the soil and biosphere into the atmosphere. Specifically we’ve moved 880 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is heating up the planet and destabilising our climate. Now, the oceans have absorbed a lot of this excess carbon, which is resulting in ocean acidification and accelerating a mass extinction of sea life.
The big question is: Where do we put this excess carbon to get this cycle back in balance? Lucky for us, nature has the answer: plants, with sunlight and water, perform photosynthesis. They pull carbon in from the air and turn it into carbohydrates or sugar. Then they pump some of these sugars down through their roots to feed micro organisms who use that carbon to build soil. This process naturally moves the carbon with the plants pumping it in, and the soil storing it.
“Our global agricultural production systems are frequently at war with ecosystem health and Mother Nature,” - Nicole Masters, The Story of Soil
Scientists have recently discovered that applying a thin layer of compost, one time, sets up an ongoing positive feedback loop that brings more and more carbon into the soil each year. In concert with other regenerative practices like not tilling the soil, planting trees and cover crops, and planned grazing, we can build and retain gigatons of soil carbon. Unlike carbon in the atmosphere, more carbon in the ground is good for us. It makes healthy soil, which is nutrient rich and full of life and holds way more water. This means more nutritious food, and crops that are more resilient in the face of drought.
“The re-generation of our soil is the task of our generation” - Kiss The Ground
Watch with us: ‘Kiss The Ground’ is an essential watch to understand the future of farming and the part soil will play. Science experts and celebrity activists unpack the ways in which the earth’s soil may be the key to combating climate change and preserving the planet.
Image credits: National Geographic, Patagonia, Jim Richardson