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Is Healthy, Vibrant Soil a Solution for Climate Change?

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An interview with Ryan Wirick, documentary filmmaker.

By Nicole Faires Posted Nov 29, 2016

Frog in soil

There are many people waking up to the fact that climate change is a fundamental threat to humanity, and with that awakening is a rising sense of panic. How do we not only stop its advance, but also repair the damage? The solution may be as simple as understanding the critical role of an amazing substance right beneath our feet: soil.

This week we spoke with Ryan Wirick, documentary filmmaker and founder of Earth Conscious Films, about his latest project, The Need to GROW. Unlike films that have a somewhat dire message about the food system and the state of the earth in general, The Need to GROW highlights people and solutions that are making a real difference, with a special focus on soil. Ryan spoke with us about industrial agriculture, composting, and everything in between.

The Impacts of Industrial Agriculture

EE: First of all, tell us what motivated you to get involved in the issues surrounding our food system and climate change.

RW: It wasn’t until a few years ago when my wife and I decided to have a kid that I started looking into our food system much more deeply than ever before. I was working as a local journalist and decided to cover the March Against Monsanto, but wound up never writing the article. Instead I spent several months doing research. I thought I knew so much about the world, but I knew next to nothing about how contaminated our food system had become. I wound up making videos for Moms Across America, exposing the environmental and health hazards of glyphosate two years before the World Health Organization categorized it as a probable carcinogen. Unfortunately, it continues to be used, not just on GMO crops, but also as a drying agent for a wide variety of non-organic crops.

EE: What do chemicals like glyphosate and others do to the soil?
agriculture field
RW: When we add chemical fertilizers, the nutrient flow between the roots and the microbes is disrupted. When we use toxic chemicals that kill microorganisms, the nutrient flow is disrupted further. When we over-till the soil, it’s disrupted even more. When we clear cut forests to grow cattle or soybeans (largely to feed cattle), all the organic matter is removed, and the life in the ground starves. Rather than feeding the soil and enabling all that life to feed the plants, we have been trying to bypass the life in the soil, dismissing its critical relevance altogether. As a result, this has systematically eroded topsoil all around the world.

Losing Our Farmable Soil

EE: In the film there’s a statistic that 70% of the Earth’s farmable soil is gone. When people hear that fact, it’s a very abstract idea. What is the reality of not having farmable topsoil?

RW: I think a common misperception is that soil is the same thing as dirt, that it’s basically tiny rocks, and if we want to grow food, we need to add chemical fertilizers to feed the plants. It turns out this is a misconception going back a hundred years since the dawn of the chemical agricultural model. The reality is that healthy soil is comprised of thriving ecosystems of bacteria and fungi and worms and other little friends, all storing water and carbon, breaking organic matter down and making nutrients available to plants. There are all kinds of ways to feed people and regenerate soil at the same time, and those models need to be accepted as a necessary way forward for our species.

If we let our agricultural systems continue to erode soils faster than they are being replenished, we will continue to rely on a food system with a built-in expiration date.

Unfortunately we have been subsidizing models of centralized food production that contribute to soil erosion, due to greed, lobbying, and corporate-government collusion. It’s the opposite of what should be done on a policy level, and I think people have the power to make all of those efforts obsolete. If we do run out of farmable soil, it’s more or less game over, not only for humanity’s ability to grow enough food, but also for the planet’s ability to sequester carbon pollution from the atmosphere. The last thing we should ever want to know firsthand is the reality of not having enough farmable topsoil, and yet that’s exactly where we are headed if we don’t take action.

EE: How fast is topsoil disappearing? If we continue on in this manner, when will it be gone?

RW: It has been estimated that we are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mostly due to intensive farming. The chemical agricultural experiment is essentially a progress trap. It has produced results while relying on the destruction of the very resources upon which it depends. It’s an experiment that could never be sustainable, and we know that without a doubt now. Current estimates state we have about 60 years of farmable soil left on the planet.

EE: A lot of people would argue that it’s just not possible for humans to grow enough food for everyone without industrial agriculture.

RW: The 2013 UN Report, Wake Up Before It Is Too Late, written by more than 50 international experts in agriculture, calls for nothing short of a holistic paradigm shift in agriculture, including “a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers . . . the need for a two-track approach that drastically reduces the environmental impact of conventional agriculture, on the one hand, and broadens the scope for agro-ecological production methods, on the other.”

If we let our agricultural systems continue to erode soils faster than they are being replenished, we will continue to rely on a food system with a built-in expiration date. Running out of soil doesn’t have to happen, but fixing it will require the will of the people in every community to localize food as much as possible.

EE: Can you describe how the soil’s ability to sequester carbon and prevent further climate change could be a game changer?

RW: In addition to the oceans, which naturally sequester around a million tons of CO2 an hour, and the planet’s forests, healthy soil is one of Earth’s main carbon sinks. And now it seems our oceans have been overburdened with greenhouse gases, our forests are disappearing, and we are running out of soil. All of these ecological disasters diminish Earth’s ability to reverse climate change. Regenerating soil should be a cause anyone and everyone can get behind. The benefits are as innumerable as they are critical to our survival.

Decentralizing Agriculture

Allotment gardens
EE: How does decentralizing agriculture contribute to climate change prevention efforts?

RW: Decentralizing our food system has several important effects on climate change. It reduces the carbon footprint of shipping food thousands of miles. It would be less reliant on, if not completely independent from, large-scale monoculture farms that degrade soil. A decentralized food system also provides more food security, as it would rely on a wider variety of farms located closer to where people live, which is critical as the seasons become increasingly unpredictable, and it also means more crop diversity, soil diversity, and ultimately more carbon sequestration.

Growing up in Orange County, California, we used to have all these orange groves, and yet all of the orange juice in the store was from Florida.

On a cultural level, the closer people are to their food supply, the more people tend to care about environmental issues, which can have innumerable beneficial ripple effects. This is why we place a major emphasis in the film on the importance of school gardens, not only as a space for kids to learn how to grow food, but also as a space for children, teachers, and parents to stay connected to nature. A recent study showed that when children lose contact with nature, they are less likely to fight to protect it. I think the same is true for adults, but I also think it’s never too late to rekindle that connection. Our very survival may hinge on rekindling that connection through the localization of our food system.

EE: So thinking about healthy soil as the cornerstone of a healthy food system and a healthy planet requires a very personal paradigm shift?

RW: So much of what we do as a species has never made a lot of sense to me. Growing up in Orange County, California, we used to have all these orange groves, and yet all of the orange juice in the store was from Florida. I always thought it was crazy how we use so much water just to grow lawns for aesthetic reasons. I would visit my uncle’s farm in Washington State, and learned how much better food tastes when it hasn’t been picked before ripe and shipped across the country. I also spent a lot of time at my grandparent’s log cabin in Dixie Forest in Utah, and just always had a serious reverence for nature.

There are so many ways people can get involved, and what gives me hope is that once people do, it’s transformative. Once we become active in solving problems and creating real change, there is no greater high, no greater sense of empowerment, purpose, and dignity.

My dad was a lifelong surfer and cared deeply about the ocean, which definitely rubbed off on me. He also grew tomatoes and other crops in his backyard, and taught me about seed saving. So I’ve always been an environmentalist at heart, and I’ve asked questions about our food system and how we use resources since I can remember. At the same time, I loved junk food as much as the next kid. But here I am today, working towards change, in part because I had these experiences as a child.

There are so many ways people can get involved, and what gives me hope is that once people do, it’s transformative. Once we become active in solving problems and creating real change, there is no greater high, no greater sense of empowerment, purpose, and dignity. It’s like remembering what we are all doing here in the first place, which puts a lot of priorities, habits, and worries in perspective.

Finding Hope

EE: You interviewed a lot of people in the film. Which ones, in your opinion, had the most practical solutions and that gave you the most hope?

RW: Probably the most practical solution for regenerating degraded soil is composting. We interviewed Rod Tyler, the President of the US Composting Council, Kathy Kellogg from Kellogg Garden Products, and many others about the importance of composting. Composting not only diverts food waste from turning into methane in landfills and contributing to climate change, but it also provides organic matter that feeds the soil, enabling further carbon sequestration out of the atmosphere. And composting is something anyone can do. In the U.S. it is an enormous, untapped resource. Of course we should be reducing our food waste as much as possible, but any leftover that can be composted should be.

One of the main subjects in the film, Bobby Walker, composts in a DIY vermicompost bucket system inside his home, turning food scraps into nutrient-rich soil amendments that he then takes to his farm.

As Bill Mollison, the co-founder of permaculture, used to say, “Although the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”

The Urban Farming Institute of Boston, where Bobby is a farm trainer, is one of the more practical solutions in the film that gives me hope. Our food system can only be localized to the extent that we have farmers who are well trained and understand how to find land, grow food, sell food and maintain a viable business. That’s exactly what the Urban Farming Institute of Boston is working to solve. We follow Sierra Morton, one of Bobby’s students, as she finishes the class and applies all that she has learned in her own life.

Larry Santoyo and his permaculture design course is another example of practical solutions that offer hope. By developing principles of design based on the observations of nature, we can solve almost any problem in regenerative ways. We need educators like Larry and Bobby that empower people with the tools needed to participate in localizing food.

The Need to GROW

Similarly, Alicia Serratos, another one of the main subjects in the film, was inspired by David King (founder of the Seed Library of Los Angeles) to start a seed library at her elementary school. She has gone on to start seed libraries at other schools and teaches kids about the importance of seed diversity.

EE: How much hope do you have for the future?

RW: We can reverse a lot of this, and as active participants in an interconnected biosphere, we have every responsibility to repair the damage we have caused. The solution isn’t for humans to just starve and disappear; we can actually be a force for ecosystem regeneration on this planet and grow an abundance of food at the same time. As Bill Mollison, the co-founder of permaculture, used to say, “Although the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”

EE: Your Kickstarter ends on November 30, 2016. Why should people back your project and what do they need to know to do so?

RW: If you love to eat food, and would like future generations to also love to eat food, and if you long to live on a planet that is not on the brink of ecological collapse, The Need To GROW is probably a project you could really get behind. Other documentaries have done an excellent job exposing many of these problems, but no documentary has placed the focus on holistic solutions like we have, from ancient techniques to cutting edge technologies. How we are going to feed our species without destroying the Earth is truly the issue of our time, and what we have made with this film is the furthest thing from a talking-head-style documentary of doom and gloom. It’s a story-driven rollercoaster—a funny, dramatic, informative roller coaster with unexpected twists and turns that is ultimately hopeful and inspiring.

Now more than ever I think people are looking for solutions and ways to get involved. We intend for our film to serve as a powerful catalyst for change, starting at the local level. A Kickstarter is running right now to finish the final steps of post-production and the film does need the community’s help to be completed.

Author photo

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Nicole Faires is an urban farmer and best-selling author of books on sustainable agriculture and food policy. Originally from Montana, she now lives with her husband, four kids and giant dog on the West Coast. Find out more at http://deliberatelife.ca or connect with her on LinkedIn.
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