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'SOS: Save Our Soil' Shows Innovative Approaches to Sustainable Agriculture

“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

–Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1937

America has not heeded the warning Roosevelt issued nearly 80 years ago. Precious soils are being decimated daily by misguided reliance on industrialized agriculture and synthetic chemicals, which disrupt its delicate ecosystem.

The soils are poisoned with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and allowed to wash away from overfarming, overgrazing, and erosion. Once teeming with life, our prairies and grasslands are being turned into lifeless dust fields.

The PBS documentary “SOS: Save our Soil,” part of its Food Forward series,1 highlights a few “food rebels” who are finding innovative ways to create a more sustainable food system, including making humus compost out of grass stubble and turning chicken litter into biochar.

The top six inches of soil are the most precious yet least understood ecosystem on Earth. In order to appreciate its importance to our very survival, you first must understand the role carbon plays in maintaining the ecological balance of our entire planet.

Conventional agriculture that relies on tilling and monocrops decimates the top soil and is responsible for massive losses every year. So much so that some predict that most of the topsoil in the US will be lost in the next two generations.

Have We Forgotten We’re Carbon-Based Life Forms?

All life on earth is carbon-based, yet we seem to ignore carbon’s importance. Even soil microbes need carbon to flourish, which is why slow and steady carbon depletion from our soils will inevitably lead to ecological collapse.2,3 Deprived of carbon and critical microbes, soils become sterile; devoid of the microbial ecosystem.

The problem of carbon depletion in soils is not limited to the US. The world’s cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original carbon, much of which has been oxidized upon exposure to air to become carbon dioxide (CO2).4

One of the largest factors driving this carbon depletion problem is the food/agriculture industry, particularly tilling, lack of cover crops, monocropping, genetically engineered (GE) crops, and their massive dependence on synthetic chemicals, which quickly decimate topsoil.

Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. In 2012 alone, 35.7 billion tons of this greenhouse gas entered the atmosphere.5 Some CO2 is absorbed by the oceans, plants, and soil—healthy soil is a bountiful carbon reservoir.

Scientists have recently discovered how organic carbon is stored in soil—it binds only to certain soil structures. Soil's capacity to absorb CO2 is directly related to its health; therefore, soil preservation and restoration needs to be incorporated into today's climate models.6