Don’t Treat Soil Like Dirt

by Tilly Pick

The evening of September 4th with the Boston Area Sustainability Group started like no other.

Yes, it once again was a diverse group of sustainability-minded people: professionals deeply involved in the topic; “students”; career switchers and networkers; activists and advocates. All of them were passionate and curious.

And, it once again was an important topic for learning, discussion and sharing. This time BASG tackled agriculture, more specifically “regenerative” agriculture, and the role of soil in addressing, even reversing, climate change.

What was unique about the evening is that it kicked off our 10th year. One of our attendees made it a point to celebrate the moment. Yeah! Our actual birthday is coming up in the Spring.

Back to the evening at hand.

Bill Moomaw brought everyone in the room up to speed about the science of leveraging agriculture to reduce and reverse carbon emissions.

Caro Roszell leaned on her own experience as a farmer and that of other farming pioneers here in the U.S. and in other parts of the world to explain how to actually do it.

Karl Thidemann got down to business about H:3713, the healthy soils bill making its way through the Massachusetts legislature, and what we can to support this important initiative.

Now, consider this:

The sustainability challenge we’re confronted with is really (just) about how we utilize the resources of our vast natural environment to solve two big problems: (1) climate change as the century’s most existential issue, and (2) how we will feed our growing population without destroying our planet.

Bill kicked us off with this awesome simplification and then showed us the many opportunities for improving our approach to — and dare I say societal relationship with — soil. I loved his pun that “all we have to do is stop treating soils like dirt.” He makes a really good point.

My bet is that those in the room who didn’t already know about the importance of soil in addressing sustainability were surprised when Caro pointed out that 1/3 of carbon emissions since the start of the industrial revolution actually came from soil.

Here’s a quick example from her many examples. It points out the upside of no-till farming, which is growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil by tilling it. In the example, weeds that were growing in the (undisturbed) pathways on a farm were healthier than the weeds in the tilled fields.

There was so much to take in that evening, and much of it you can get directly from the presentations here and by following the speakers through their work and organizations.

I personally was excited about two things.

First, I saw the beginnings of an agricultural renaissance. Not just in what we farm and how, but in the people that are doing it. I say that because of all the people I observed in the room that are interested in and/or already practicing cool new approaches to farming. It is an exciting time to become a farmer, and we have to do all we can to support them and their movement to inspire and drive systemic change.

I also got excited because of the opportunity for education to reinvent itself around this rebirth of what it means to farm. Tonight, at BASG, when we went around the room for quick introductions, it was again clear that many of us were there to learn. So, what are cool ways to teach these great innovations in farming and agriculture at scale?

Easier said than done, I know. As Karl pointed out, many of the new farming practices we talked about that evening are profitable. The real challenge is pushing through political hurdles and disincentives that litter the agricultural landscape.

Hmm, that sounds an awful lot like something I recall from Jigar Shah’s Creating Climate WealthWe have the technologies we need to address climate change. We just have to implement them.

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