Care About Sustainable Food? Start Thinking About Soil: Foodie Underground

Care About Sustainable Food? Start Thinking About Soil: Foodie Underground

ColumnIt’s easy to focus only on the fruits and vegetables that make their way to our plate. They are after all what we touch, smell and taste. But there’s an essential component to sustainable food that is often forgotten, perhaps because for most of us, it’s something we rarely interact with: soil.

Soil is essential. It’s full of life. There is a complex web of organisms beneath our feet that is responsible for keeping us alive. And we simply destroy it.

Conventional agriculture has certainly played a big roll in the demise of soil health. Think back to the 1930s and America’s Dust Bowl. The environmental disaster that ruined farmland, and left millions homeless (by the time it was over, 2.4 million people had left the Plains), was the result of years of unsustainable agricultural practices, farmers essentially working the soil to death. In its wake the government worked to put policies in place that would prevent such a disaster in the future, and created the Soil Erosion Service, which would later become the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

But while the Dust Bowl is a history lesson, our mismanagement of soil is an ongoing, current problem, and it is one with severe consequences. According to the Organic Consumers Association, “Without protecting and regenerating the soil on our four billion acres of cultivated farmland, 14 billion acres of pasture and rangeland, and 10 billion acres of forest land, it will be impossible to feed the world, keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, or halt the loss of biodiversity.”

Soil as it turns out, is at the root of everything, and it’s the key to a laundry list of our modern day ailments. If we respect the soil, and start to implement agricultural policies that work on regenerating the earth beneath us, instead of extracting what we need and destroying the rest, we can begin to find a sustainable path forward. And that is a path that’s not just about food.  “Regenerative agriculture provides answers to the soil crisis, the food crisis, the health crisis, the climate crisis and the crisis of democracy,” said activist and author Vandana Shiva.

Even the United Nations is calling for a radical shift in how we do agriculture. A 2013 report (titled “Wake Up Before Its Too Late”) from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development called for a “paradigm 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.”

With better agricultural practices that benefit the earth — which can involve leaving land untilled, and planting cover crops to increase the amount of organic matter in soil — we can reduce or even eliminate the use for pesticides, make crops more productive, and be better able to deal with things like drought. We can literally turn back the clock on the destruction that modern agriculture has done, and farmers benefit financially in the process. “Nature can heal if we give her the chance,” Gabe Brown, a farmer in North Dakota, told the New York Times in an article earlier this year on the topic. The important thing to remember is that healing nature isn’t just good for nature, it’s good for us too.

But sustainable food and agriculture isn’t just a question of whether or not you can get heirloom tomatoes at the local farmers market in August, it’s a question of global food security and addressing an environmental crisis.

Regeneration International is a group of researchers, activists and farmers which has formed to “promote the multifunctional benefits of regenerative forms of agriculture such as agro-ecology, holistic grazing, cover cropping, permaculture, and agroforestry.” This group is working hard to challenge the agricultural status quo.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the topic of climate change. What we do in the face of crisis isn’t always an easy solution. But the point of regenerative agriculture, is that it all starts from the ground up. That if we started rethinking how we did agriculture, then we could deal with some of the serious problems that we are struggling with today. The solution is literally right under our feet.

According to the Rodale Institute, “recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture.’ These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.”

So what can you do? Start supporting and advocating for organizations that work on the topic of soil health and regenerative agriculture. Respect the soil in your own garden, learn how it works and learn how to make it as healthy as possible. Boycott agribusiness and support farmers going against the status quo.

There is a sustainable path forward, we just have to choose to walk it.

3 Environmental Benefits of Farming You Probably Didn’t Realize

Soil Pollution Destroyed 8 Million Acres of Chinese Farmland

Can a Loaf of Bread Decrease Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at

Image: Natural Resources Conservation Services

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.