Our Love Affair With Soil
And Why We Tread Lightly With Industrial Compost and Materials Made Through Industrial Agriculture
There is something sumptuous about combing your hand through rich, live soil.
If you’re lucky enough to have a thriving, organic garden (or even an amazing home compost!) you know that feeling of joy when you see your dark, black soil teeming with worms and insects, soaking up water beautifully, letting plant roots grow strong and deep.
Healthy, thriving soil is an incredible resource for the planet and its inhabitants. Here are three direct and powerful benefits for humans.
- Sequesters and stores carbon: Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and pass carbon to the soils when dead roots and leaves decompose. Carbon from animals and dead plant matter are also absorbed into the soil as they decompose. This all builds up the soil’s organic carbon (SOC). According to the CSIRO, in rain-forests or good soils, soil organic carbon levels can be greater than 10%, while in poorer or heavily exploited soils, levels are likely to be less than 1%. Excessive carbon in the atmosphere and oceans has a tragic impact on global warming and life on the planet. Carbon in the soil, however, is highly beneficial to microbes, insects and plants grown in it.
- Agricultural production: Thriving soil (and the regenerative agricultural practices that help support soil health) leads to improved plant and agricultural production. One private study compared regenerative and industrial agriculture over 30 years and found that the farms with live, carbon rich soil suffered fewer pests, produced higher yields and was 3 times as profitable.
- Protection against droughts, floods, fires and other extreme weather patterns: Healthy soils capture and store much more water (earthworms, arthropods and decaying roots form macropores in the soil actually hold water). In a drought, this means healthy soil has reserves of water that can be released to plants. In periods of intense, heavy precipitation, this soil is capable of absorbing much more of the water, preventing it from running off and generating floods. For every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter, soil can hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre! This makes healthy soil and the plants grown on it much more resilient to extreme weather patterns.
This doesn’t begin to get into the ways healthy, thriving soil supports and protects plants, animals and biodiversity.
Healthy soil like this represented a lot of the Earth’s soil thousands of years ago, before modern agriculture and development took over.
Today, it is a rare and unique farm or garden plot with “humus” high in soil organic carbon.
Soil in the United States, which have been cultivated heavily for the past two hundred years, have lost up to 50% of their soil carbon. In areas of the world where cultivation has been going on for millennia, soil carbon depletion is much higher—up to 80 percent or more.
How is carbon getting released from the soil?
This largely happens when untouched “natural” land is cleared for agriculture.
In fact, 15-18% of all greenhouse gas emissions is believed to be a result of clearing lands for agriculture.
Once natural lands are cleared for industrial agriculture, the process - by design - kills the native plants grown on the soil and then turns living soil into dead dirt. These steps gradually release carbon from the soil into the atmosphere and into waterways as runoff.
The following cornerstones of agriculture today steadily release soil organic carbon:
- Heavy tilling and blowing, which turns soils much faster and deeper than they ever would be disturbed naturally.
- Heavy doses of herbicides and pesticides whose stated function is to kill naturally occuring life in soils.
- Fertilizers, which are designed to artificially put nutrients back into the soil that have been released by the previously described steps. Fertilizers, unlike soil rich in soil organic carbon, offgases as nitrous oxide from runoff and leaching.
- Overgrazing of livestock, with livestock held in small plots, eating plants down to their nub, which then prevents the photosynthesis needs to convert atmospheric carbon into carbon stored in the soil.
- Monocrop operations, with a single crop being grown at a time, eliminating any hope for plant and soil biodiversity.
- Leaving soils bare during non-productive months, eliminating all plant life needed to convert carbon in the air into soil organic carbon.
While it is tempting to blame today’s modern agricultural regime and chemical companies for these woes, humans have been disturbing soils since the dawn of agriculture.
Desertification has been a theme throughout human history, with humans creating deserts like the Sahara through poor agricultural practices. Additionally, 75% of global deforestation actually occurred before 1850.
Thankfully, soil is finally becoming a leading environmental topic.
Carbon sequestration is now more readily seen as a key step in mitigating climate change. For many, myself included, there is a growing belief that soil holds real potential to help save us. In fact, several years ago, EcoEnclose made the commitment to be a net regenerating business by 2030, knowing that investing in soil health would be the main strategy in achieving that goal.
All climate experts agree that we have to minimize the burning of fossil fuels in order to stave off global warming - this is absolutely essential.
But the exciting thing about soil is its potential to actually reverse global warming by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. For every one ton of organic carbon sequestered into soil, an equivalent of about 3.67 tons of carbon dioxide are removed from the atmosphere.
Rattan Lal, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center (C-MASC) at Ohio State University states that “The carbon in the soil is like a cup of water,” Lal says. “We have drunk more than half of it, but we can put more water back in the cup. With good soil practices, we could reverse global warming.”
Lal believes that 3 billion tons of carbon can be sequestered annually in the world’s soils. Many other experts and practitioners are even more optimistic. One scientist quoted in Ohlson’s book, The Soil Will Save Us, says we could offset all current CO2 emissions by sequestering carbon, through regenerative agriculture, on 11 million acres of idled land.
Reviving soils means changing the way we’ve been farming for the past several decades. Farmers and ranchers would use no-till, cover crop cocktails and employ mob grazing of their livestock. Farmers would move from monocrop operations to more diverse, permaculture practices. Strong composting systems would become an essential component to all agricultural operations. Households, businesses, golf courses would incorporate clover and other nitrogen fixing additions to their grass, while also planting a plethora of beneficial plants.
None of this is to say that soil health is ALL we need to focus on. Energy and resource consumption, transitioning to clean and renewable sources of energy that don’t release carbon into the atmosphere, protecting our oceans from acidification and plastic pollution, preserving supplies of clean and fresh water -- these are all essential components of the world’s fight against climate change.
But soil health - and the factors that support and negate this end goal - cannot be overlooked.
As a business or individual, what can you do to support soil health?
Here are a few steps to consider.
- The raw materials you source for your products: Any material that originates from a plant is impacting soil when it is produced - wood, cotton, bamboo, Tencel, bio-based plastic, paper, etc. Seek out 100% recycled or upcycled raw materials wherever possible. If virgin materials are the only option for you, look for non-GMO, organic, sustainably grown raw materials as a starting point. Ideally, find farmers or suppliers that have gone well beyond the baseline thresholds for organic or sustainable, and are actively investing in soil health and diversity. Do what you can to look beyond the surface and ask questions of the raw materials you are using. For example, bamboo is often touted as a sustainable fabric. However, the vast majority of bamboo is grown via industrial agriculture that we know very little about. On the other hand, Tencel, a fiber grown from eucalyptus trees, can be found through sources that have made many investments in sustainable farming and soil health.
- Your packaging: If you are packaging using natural fibers, we recommend 100% recycled paper-based packaging. If 100% recycled is not an option, look for paper in which the virgin component of the mix is from sustainable sources. Again, consider going even further by looking for tree farms that have invested heavily in their soil health and biodiversity. Natural fibers such as hemp and bamboo are also emerging. A beautifully run tree farm is hard to beat, in terms of its positive impact on the planet. But if other natural fibers are better for you, ask the hard questions about how the materials are grown. Many are touting bio-based plastic as a solution to today’s marine plastic challenges. Remember that current, bio-based plastic is produced through highly intensive industrial agriculture that destroys soils and waterways. If a material like PLA actually becomes a mainstream alternative to traditional plastic, it would lead to mass clearing of new lands for agriculture (with land clearing contributing 15-18% of greenhouse gas emissions).
- Your land, yard and/or garden: Do you have a yard around your house and/or office? If so, could you convert it from a monocrop (or concrete) on top of dead dirt, into a biodiverse landscape atop healthy soil?
- The food you eat: Much of the dialog around organic and GMO has been about health impacts and benefits to your body. But even if they are exactly the same for your health, the benefit of sustainable agriculture on lands and soils cannot be overlooked. Grow your own food if at all possible (through permaculture or regenerative practices wherever possible), and seek out sources of food you can trust and verify to align with your commitment to soil health. At the very least, look for certified organic food and truly grass-fed, responsibly grazed meat.
- How you compost: There is a growing misconception that when you compost something, it goes away, seamlessly returning to the earth. Unfortunately, when you compost something that has some contamination - such as a compostable plastic bag with an adhesive or ink, or a printed piece of paper - those chemicals remain in the compost, and are ultimately transferred to our soils. When I look at the list of what our local composter will accept, I am both proud to be in a community so dedicated to landfill diversion and struck by the fact that I wouldn’t want to amend my garden with the output from this compost. The answer is not to stop composting! But compost wisely. Recycle and reuse anything you possibly can before turning to compost. Remove adhesives, tapes, and any other bits of contamination you possibly can before composting items.
Balancing Soil Health With Other Pressing Environmental Concerns
It seems that every sustainable decision is fraught with points and counterpoints.
The move to solar is incredible, but with it comes the downside of all of the dirty materials going into solar panels. Drive an electric car, but not if it means you are trashing your existing car which still has some miles left on it. Go LEED certified, but not if it means you are razing one structure to build a new one.
Factoring soil health into sustainability decisions similarly adds new layers of complexity. With the research we have done, we have come away with two concrete decisions.
(1) We do not consider a plant-based plastic (such as PLA) that is conventionally grown through highly intensive agriculture to be a preferred solution to traditional 100% recycled plastic.
We are eager for the development of plant-based plastics that can be produced in ways that enrich the soil and land, or at the very least, do not ravage the landscape and waterways. This is the type of material we will get behind in a big way! We would also love to see these types of plastics being pushed forward by companies who aren’t foundational to the very agricultural methods that run counter to soil health.
(2) Just because something can be composted, doesn’t mean composting is the optimal end of life outcome.
Our shipping boxes and paper mailers are examples of packaging that is technically compostable - in a home or industrial compost. But please recycle it!
We should all be thoughtful about what we put into our compost, where it will end up, and how it will enrich or detract from our soils.