“SOS: Save Our Soil” Shows Innovative Approaches to Sustainable
By Dr. Mercola
New video reporton
carbon sequestration shows how soil health affects the
planet’s climate and ecosystem, and features a few
innovative farmers with game-changing approaches to
The world’s soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their
carbon, much of which is now in the atmosphere as carbon
Humus, different from compost, nourishes soil for centuries
and develops naturally if enough organic matter is added and
the soil remains undisturbed.
“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 withchemical
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
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
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. Evensoil
carbon to flourish, which is why slow and steady carbon
depletion from our soils will inevitably lead to ecological
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
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 bindsonlyto
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
Much of the focus on reducing greenhouse gases revolves around
reducing carbon emissions, but now that we’re armed with rapidly
expanding knowledge about carbon storage in soils, greater
attention should be paid to carbon sequestration andsoil
to taking the carbon from the atmosphere and putting it back
into the soil, in a stable form of organic matter.
Many scientists say that regenerative agricultural practices can
turn back the carbon clock, reducing atmospheric CO2 while also
boosting soil productivity and increasing its resilience to
floods, pests, and drought. Today, just three percent of North
resulting in a massive loss of soil carbon into the atmosphere.
“The importance of soil carbon—how it is leached from the
earth and how that process can be reversed—is the subject of
intensifying scientific investigation, with important
implications for the effort to slow the rapid rise of carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere.
Scientists say that more carbon resides in soil than in the
atmosphere and all plant life combined; there are 2,500
billion tons of carbon in soil, compared with 800 billion
tons in the atmosphere and 560 billion tons in plant and
And compared to many proposed geoengineering fixes, storing
carbon in soil is simple: It’s a matter of returning carbon
where it belongs.”
According to Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State University’s
Carbon Management and Sequestration Center:8
“The top priorities are restoring degraded and eroded lands,
as well as avoiding deforestation and the farming of
peatlands, which are a major reservoir of carbon and are
easily decomposed upon drainage and cultivation...Bringing
carbon back into soils has to be done not only to offset
fossil fuels, but also to feed our growing global
population. We cannot feed people if soil is degraded.”
Soil’s Favorite Food: Humus
Several game-changing farmers are addressing this problem.
California farmer John Wick, who calls himself a “carbon
farmer,” is making humus compost. Wick is the co-founder of the
Main Carbon Project in Nicasio, California. Carbon-rich organic
matter is what givessoilits
water-retention capacity, its structure and fertility, so the
objective is to add high-quality, sustainable organic matter
back into the soil—and humus compost fits the bill. Wick makes
humus compost from biomass such as corn stalks, wheat, and oat
straw, soybean stubble, manure, and clay, plus three microbial
inoculants. This is not ordinary compost, but closer to the
naturally occurring humus that forms on forest floors.
Humus and Compost Are Two Different Things
It’s important to realize thatcompostand
humus are different. Compost is organic matter that’s been
decomposing to the smallest particles. Finished compost is only
halfway to humus, which is a more effective and matured form of
carbon. Humus is not a layer of soil but a component in
soil—there is no such thing as a “humus layer.” Even though
commercial products are sold as humus, the vast majority is
really only finished compost, as true humus is only formed in
is presumably why John Wick calls his product “humus compost,”
which is as close as we can get to true humus.
Through photosynthesis, a plant draws carbon out of the air to
form carbon compounds. What the plant doesn’t need for growth is
exuded through its roots to feed soil organisms. Over time,
these organisms (mostly bacteria andfungi)
break down organic matter into smaller and smaller molecules
until most of the usable chemicals in the organic matter have
been extracted by the microorganisms and made available to the
When all of the “good stuff “ is used up, the remaining material
is called humus in a process is known as humification. Humus
consists mostly of carbon in complex molecules or aggregates,
and because microorganisms cannot further decompose it, it’s
extremely stable—humus can persist in soil for hundreds and even
thousands of years. This is in contrast to "active" topsoil
carbon, which is in continual flux between microbial hosts and
Humus Gives Soil Its Ability to Store Water and Nutrients
Scientists don’t yet fully understand humus, but they’ve been
able to identify some of the characteristics that make it so
highly beneficial, including the following:
Like a big sponge, humus can hold up to 90 percent of its
Because of its negative charge, manyplant
to humus (nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and
others), preventing them from washing away and acting as
nature’s slow release fertilizer
Humus massively improves soil’s structure, making it loose
and friable and helping plants root by providing them better
access to nutrients, water, and oxygen
Humus may help “filter” toxic chemicals out of the soil,
much like carbon-based water filtration systems filter
toxins out of your water
You can build your soil’s humus content by top coating—not
tilling—your soil with organic matter, such as woodchips,
manure, and compost. Tilling should be avoided as it destroys
soil’s intricate structure. Many innovative farmers and
agricultural scientists have found ways to turn animal and human
waste into fully finished, healthy compost—you can’t get much
more sustainable than that! And it really packs a punch—in one
case, a farmer who topped his soilone
one-half inch of manure compost got 25 to 50 percent more plant
growth for four years.
Turning Chicken Poop into Biochar
another way to add stable, long-lasting carbon to your soil.
Biochar is created by slowly heating a biomass in a low-oxygen
environment, such as a kiln, until everything but the carbon is
burned off, and then putting it into the ground. Historically,
fire has been the driving force of the earth’s carbon cycle.
Natural fires started by lightning burned large swaths of plants
and trees, returning the carbon back to the soil in the form of
charcoal. Today, most societies take steps to prevent wild fires
and greatly restrict burning practices.
Midwest poultry farmer Josh Frye has figured out a way to do
what fires do, by transforming chicken poop into biochar using
green technology with minimal emissions. Just like the
scientists who successfully turnedhuman
urine into fertilizer, this is one more example of how waste
can be turned into a useful and sustainable product with the
potential for improving our food system and reducing
Increase Your Soil’s Health with Woodchips
A great, cost-effective alternative to compost or biochar that
will radically improve the nutrient quality of your foods is
mulching with wood chips. I learned aboutwood
my interview with Paul Gautschi. You just lay down uncomposted
wood chips on top of your garden—using whatever is available
locally, typically a combination of leaves, twigs, and branches.
The chips break down gradually and are digested and redigested
by a wide variety of bacteria, fungi, and nematodes in the soil,
which is exactly what happens in nature.
After a year or so, you’ll develop lush soil underneath the
chips that will happily support trees, vegetables, or whatever
else you’re trying to grow. The longer you leave the chips on
and the deeper you heap them, the thicker your topsoil will be.
Wood chips also reduce your weeding by more than 90 percent,
because the weeds that do grow are very easy to pull out by
their roots. Wood chips drastically reduce the need for watering
and eliminate your need for fertilizers, and they provide
excellent insulation for your plants and soil, moderating the
temperatures in both summer and winter.
Woodchips are a very concentrated form of biomass and can form
massive amounts of humus if allowed to compost properly. I have
personally put on over a half a million pounds of woodchips on
my quarter acre of landscaping and am starting to see excellent
results on my four dozen fruit trees, berry shrubs, and
vegetables. The chips eliminate the need for irrigation and
fertilizers, reduce weeds, and serve as earthworm magnets. The
earthworm population on my property has literally exploded.
You Can’t Be Healthy Without Food from Healthy Soil
One of the more insidious aspects of the industrial food system
is that, as soil becomes sicker and less able to perform its
functions, farmers become increasingly dependent on the chemical
technology industry—they become trapped. The use ofglyphosatebegins
a downward spiral, making it necessary for farmers to use more
and more herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers that
kill soil microbes. Especially if they’re using genetically
engineered (GE) seeds. Weeds become resistant to glyphosate, so
farmers must use more weed killers.
Crops become nutrient-deprived, so they’re forced to increase
their use of synthetic fertilizers. Weeds and bugs become
superweeds and superbugs... and on and on in a vicious cycle.
The best way to avoid this trap is to refrain from using
agrochemicals in the first place. Any organic farmer will tell
you that they’re growing SOIL, not food—a properly cared for
soil will take care of growing your food. The key is to use
regenerative soil techniques instead of factory farming
approaches, which are degenerative.
The answer to world hunger is not GE foods or fuels, but rather
reverting to ecologically rational andsustainable
agricultural practices, with an emphasis on supporting small
local farmers. In a comprehensive global report entitled
“Agriculture at a Crossroads,” IAAST (International Assessment
of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for
Development) gave high-tech farming a dismal two thumbs-down.10,11Resistance
to revamping the food system can be expected from a few
mega-corporations whose pockets are lined by the chemical
technology and pesticide industries, but as a consumer, you have
a great deal of power as you vote every day with your wallet.