Embrace the Soil

Greetings from coastal North Carolina. My family has decamped from Brooklyn to be with my parents in a beautiful spot on the Intracoastal Waterway. We are fortunate to be able to escape from the city for a bit.

The topic I want to cover today is the impact — both positive and negative — that soil-related issues have on the environment and our climate crisis. With many people stuck at home and thinking more about gardening, protecting and nurturing your soil is one small way to do your part. Let’s explore how…

The synthetic fertilizers that get sprayed on lawns, golf courses and fields help increase crop yields and keep the grass lush, but they have serious effects on our waterways and on global warming. 

First, our waterways. When it rains, the fertilizer is swept into creeks, rivers and sounds, creating algae blooms and depleting the oxygen in the water. This can kill fish or make it unsafe to eat shellfish from these waters. As warmer temperatures cause heavier rains, this will become a bigger problem with more runoff and more disruption to marine life.

This issue hit home for me this week when we had a huge rain. My daughter and I had gone clamming the day before, and the clams were awaiting their fate in a basket in the water. After the rainstorm, the marsh where we had collected the clams was suddenly full of brown, murky water, and the NC Department of Marine Fisheries temporarily closed the waters for shellfish collection because of pollution levels. No more clams for dinner.

I was struck by the sadness and stress that I felt when the pollution hit so close to home. I could see the direct impact that my parents’ neighbors’ choices have on the water quality. The construction site up the road is not handling its runoff appropriately, and fertilizers from a nearby golf course almost certainly contribute to the pollution. In fact, in the last 10 years, every single inland creek on this stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway has been permanently closed to shellfish collection because of pollution caused by residential and commercial runoff. (See red areas below)

Synthetic fertilizers clearly affect water quality, but that’s not all. They contribute to global warming because soil bacteria converts excess nitrate fertilizers into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 298 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its warming effect. According to a McKinsey report, agriculture accounts for 80% of global nitrous oxide emissions. The problem is compounded by the over-application of fertilizer. That same McKinsey report estimates that $13 billion is wasted every year on excess fertilizer. $13 billion?!

These fertilizers, which became popular after World War II, have been a boon to agriculture and have helped feed the earth’s population. But they’ve clearly come at a cost. 

How can large-scale improvements happen?

We have a long way to go in changing the ways of big agriculture, but a new way of doing things — known as regenerative agriculture — is gaining momentum. Not only does it reduce emissions, but it can also actually remove carbon from the atmosphere. This approach revolves around restoring the carbon content in the soil. You do that by not tilling the soil, planting cover crops, not adding synthetic fertilizers and rotating crops multiple times. The result: soil carbon levels rise.

Project Drawdown says: “It is estimated that at least 50 percent of the carbon in the earth’s soils has been released into the atmosphere over the past centuries. Bringing that carbon back home through regenerative agriculture is one of the greatest opportunities to address human and climate health, along with the financial well-being of farmers.”

I’m excited by some new organizations that are getting the regenerative movement off the ground. Carbon180 and Kiss the Ground are two wonderful soil-obsessed non-profits. Nori is a cool startup that is building a marketplace for carbon removal, starting by paying farmers to adopt regenerative practices that sequester carbon in the soil. And Indigo Ag, an agriculture-technology startup that has raised $850M in venture capital funding, uses microbial technology to help farmers replace chemicals and synthetic fertilizers.

What can you do to have an impact?

The one thing I’d like you to take away here is to love and nurture the soil in any way you can. If you have a yard or a garden, don’t use synthetic fertilizers. Buy organic soil. And compost so that you can put nutrients back into your garden.

If you are considering planting a lawn, don’t do it. Lawns are biodiversity deserts and water hogs, and they contribute more emissions than they sequester. This CNN article lays out all the reasons why lawns are a weird, bad obsession. It says that American residential lawns take up 49,000 square miles, which is nearly equal to the entire country of Greece. Imagine all the carbon that could be sequestered in that amount of land!

If you already have a lawn, consider allowing wildflowers to seed themselves in it and help the bees by mowing infrequently. And if yards and gardens are not something you have access to, you can help the soil by buying organic food if you can afford it. While the emissions picture of organic farming is complicated, at least you know you’re not supporting the use of synthetic fertilizers.

Some interesting things I’ve read recently:

The Sickness in Our Food Supply, a scary breakdown of the way we produce and distribute food, by Michael Pollan. (NY Review of Books)

A great personal action guide for the environment by Dr. Jonathan Foley, the Executive Director of Project Drawdown. 

The Times is tracking the 100 environmental regulations that the Trump administration is reversing.

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