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Back to basics: soil as a tool to fight climate change

Karen Hernández Enríquez

IT Trainee at Latam Bridge


Planet Earth, home to a growing number of Homo sapiens, and a whole lot of other creatures. It’s a great place to live, but when it comes to the future of our small planet …  There’s so much bad news about it, it’s overwhelming. The fear that we’re headed towards a cliff puts most of us under a state of paralysis. Truth is, I’ve given up and the odds are, so have you. But what if, there was another path? In fact, the solution is right under our feet, and it’s as old as dirt. We called it soil, earth, or ground (Kiss the Ground, 2020).

Throughout the years, environmental activists have been fighting for the Earth in hopes of avoiding the next mass extinction and the growing threat of climate change. People all around the world are fighting to save our soil, hoping that it will save us. Thanks to its sheer magnitude and its ability to capture huge volumes of greenhouse gases, it could be the only thing that stabilizes our climate, restores our sources of freshwater, and feeds the world.

Most producers don’t really know how the soil works, leading up to an ecological problem. Due to modern agriculture not being designed for the betterment of soil, extensive plowing results in its erosion and in it becoming dirt. Another intrusive practice in modern agriculture is tilling. Due to the genetic mutations done to specific genes in crops like corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans, among others, certain characteristics of said crops are lost and the soil loses precious minerals, leading to weaker soil and to the use of chemical sprays. As consequence, our most common crops are genetically altered to resist the spraying of toxic pesticides and since its rise in popularity in the 1970s, this has led to the loss of one-third of the Earth’s topsoil. Topsoil is where the highest concentration of organic matter and microorganisms can be found and is where most of the Earth’s biological soil activity occurs. Thus, spraying the soil with toxic chemicals kills the very microbes we need to pull the carbon from the atmosphere.

The fate of carbon and water is tied to soil organic matter. Healthy soil absorbs water and carbon dioxide, but when soil dries out, it instead releases water and carbon dioxide, drying out the soil and turning it into dust. The process of land turning into desert is known as desertification, and is a pressing threat to our life style and other animal species with two-thirds of the world undergoing this process. By 2050, it’s estimated that one billion people will be refugees because of soil desertification and its negative effects on subsistence agriculture.

Despite the complexity of the problem, soil itself is part of the solution to these dynamics of ever-growing climate change. It has the unique ability to sequester carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere thanks to carbon being the driving engine of the system and the basis for all lifeforms on Earth. Carbon itself is not our enemy. Plants use sunlight as energy, pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into carbon fuel that allows them to grow. About 40% of that carbon fuel is sent down to their roots leaking it to soil microorganisms. In other words, plants are feeding soil microorganisms carbon and the microorganisms are giving plants mineral nutrients, in that process creating a carbon glue that then constructs a pocket habitat in the soil to control the flow of air and water and finally fixing carbon within the soil.

According to the UN, the worlds remaining topsoil will be gone in the next 60 years. Actions need to be taken and due to the urgent nature of finding a solution for desertification, Tickell and other members of Kiss the Ground propose drawdown as a solution. Project Drawdown defines the concept as the point in the future when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline, thereby stopping catastrophic climate change. However, this reversal cannot be achieved without using plants, trees, perennials and grazing and farming techniques to capture carbon and store it within the soil and retain it for decades if not centuries. This may be quite simple, but it needs to be done on a global scale. Were we to start a year-to-year reduction in carbon in the upper atmosphere, the begging of cooling could possibly start within 20 years.

In conclusion, while there is a long road ahead, change is possible if the discussion continues, allowing for many different perspectives to come together to take care of our soil. Knowing how the soil works and good practices for growing crops is key for the future of the Earth. Practices like regeneration or permaculture will help in the drawdown, but individual practices and activities like collecting food scraps and creating compost are some examples of how we could possibly implement new and better practices to help keep our soil.