How often do you think about soil? Unless you’re a farmer or have had substantial experience gardening or growing crops, it most likely doesn’t cross your mind too often.
Yet we depend on soil for countless reasons. It’s the mother that feeds us. It’s the skin that protects us. It’s the respirator that ensures human survival. In essence, soil needs to be carefully tended to and nourished so that it can retain its natural state of balance. But conventional food systems disregard the importance of thriving soil and have thrown the foundations of our food way out of whack.
We have to cultivate the understanding that true health starts, quite literally, from the ground up. Let’s look at the basics. What does healthy soil involve? And how is the current rebirth in agriculture renewing this vital source? And finally, how can we seek out and support these efforts to ensure not just a sustainable but also a regenerative future?
Here are three key ingredients for healthy soil:
- Balance: Density to insulate and allow roots to soak in water and nutrients, with lightness to drain water effectively.
- Biodiversity: A handful of good soil contains more microbes (in the form of bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes) than there are humans on earth.
- Nontoxicity: Healthy soil should be free of toxins (such as herbicide residues, allelopathic substances, and acids). Soil is sensitive to pollution from industrial runoff, which can be transported through water and weather from other nearby farms.
When soil is healthy, it’s self-sustaining, and can protect itself from the elements (including adverse weather changes such as droughts). But when it’s depleted and filled with toxins, it becomes weak. Industrial agriculture is degenerative, destroying and depleting vital biodiversity and ecosystems, and perpetuating imbalance and toxicity. Food production processes have been streamlined to a fault, and it has come at the expense of vital soil and healthy food. Farms that once operated in tune with natural cycles have begun to produce one singular crop, year after year, on the same land—often referred to as “monocropping.” This practice usually goes hand in hand with an intensive application of commercial fertilizers, heavy use of pesticides, a reliance on genetically engineered seed (genetically modified organisms—GMOs), rigorous irrigation, and heavily mechanized farming methods. Monocropping is a completely counterintuitive way to grow food. We are children of the earth, children of life, and we must respect nature, not work against it.
The good news is we can reverse these problems—organic and regenerative agriculture are critical solutions.
With certified organic methods, crops are rotated and no harmful pesticides are used, creating a greater diversity of nutrients to fortify the soil. The rise of the organic movement is really an awakening to getting back to where we once were, when we grew crops in harmony with our environment, recognizing our symbiotic relationship.
And the movement for regenerative farming is not only key to restoring soil—it’s actually one of our greatest allies against climate change: in its natural, balanced state, soil can capture carbon from the atmosphere. Regenerative farming essentially turns soil into an organic sponge, purifying the air we breathe. It’s amazing how farming can be profoundly healing and revitalizing when it works in tandem with nature.
What’s the main difference between organic and regenerative agriculture? Regenerative agriculture, unfortunately, isn’t always chemical-free at this stage. Its focus is on capturing carbon—a critical goal to offset global warming and the overabundance of carbon in our atmosphere. The main methods of regenerative agriculture include:
- Composting, cover crops, and green manure: Helps to diversify microbial populations in the soil, strengthening soil ecosystems.
- No/low-till farming: Tilling interferes with fungus communities that naturally occur in the soil and increases erosion and carbon loss. In contrast, no/low-till farming increases the quality of organic matter and nutrients in the soil, making soil significantly more fertile.
Currently, organic doesn’t necessarily mean regenerative, and regenerative doesn’t necessarily mean organic. But the perfect organic system is also regenerative, and certain brands (such as Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia Provisions) subscribe to both. The best way to support regenerative agriculture today is to buy organic. These agricultural movements are bringing us back to where we came from, when food was something that we cared for, tended to, and didn’t take for granted. When food is grown with patience and love, you can taste and feel it. And of equal importance—our planet will thank you, too.