"Global warming is a blessing - because it's feedback from a complex system. Those feedback loops are guiding us to a different world." - Paul Hawkens
Sadly those feedback loops are not felt equally around the globe. The Inuit communities in the Arctic and the Indigenous people in the Amazon are witnessing the effects of climate change before many of us. Entire ecosystems dependent on sea ice and forests are collapsing. It's cascading into the remainder of the world through warming temperatures, broken land, pollution and poor food quality, causing chaos, poverty, confusion and war. Our careless actions are taking us where we don't want to go, and it's never been so clear that we can't continue to live this way. We care too little about the world outside our doors and it's threatening our survival, because our living systems are inseparable by nature. What is now required for us is to pay closer attention to the ecological relationships we are a part of, so we can grow with everything around us.
“Soil life is everywhere, doing everything.” - Matthew Evans, Gourmet Farmer and Author
Soil is one of Earth's most fundamental elements that power life, but it's hidden. It's hard to know what's going on beneath our feet without consciously getting our hands dirty. Soil is made up of organic material with particles of minerals and rock, liquids, and gases, and its health is determined by the ratio between fungi and bacteria. Paul Stamets explains that "A major component of soils in terms of biological carbon is from fungi—mycelium—living and dead. Some scientists have stated that fungal mycelium is the largest repository of biological carbon in healthy soils."
When we pull out a mushroom, we can see a fine web of white material. These root systems not only feed the fungi with nutrients, but also cleanse the soil of toxins, sequester carbon and supply fresh nutrients to surrounding plant life. The mycelium in the roots of plants act as a host for the growing fungal network. While the plants keep mycelium alive, it in turn breaks down organic matter and helps the soil retain moisture, providing plants a direct channel to both water and nutrients.
Mushrooms also work to keep the disappearing forests alive and play a larger part in sequestering carbon in the ground. Our forests are estimated to absorb a third of our CO2 emissions. When trees photosynthesise, they gobble up CO2 and change it into biomass, which gets locked in tree trunks and forest soil. Studies have shown that a great deal of carbon is stored below the surface of the soil in these complex fungal root networks. It is estimated that there are around 2500 billion tons of carbon in the soil, compared to only 800 billion tons in the atmosphere. This means that there's twice as much carbon locked in the ground as in the atmosphere.
At least 50% of the carbon in the earth’s soils has been released into the atmosphere over the past few centuries. But some carbon compounds can last for decades or centuries in the soil, while others are quickly consumed by microbes and converted into CO2 that’s lost to the atmosphere. A study reveals that fungi-rich soils grown in laboratory experiments released less carbon dioxide when heated than other soils. So to regenerate the Earth we need to carefully monitor our soil biology and create the conditions where microorganisms can draw carbon down from the atmosphere and into the ground. Our soil isn't just a medium for plant growth, but rather the base layer and container of life.
THE DELICATE BALANCE
THE CARBON CYCLE
“ Meditate often, on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.” – Maria Popova
Every life form on earth, from humans to the coffee we drink, is made of carbon. For millions of years, carbon has cycled through the earth's atmosphere, oceans, biosphere and geosphere through interactions of trees, fungi, soil, animals and sky, maintaining a delicate balance.
Plants absorb energy from the sun and inhale CO2 from the atmosphere to make sugars and other compounds through photosynthesis. At the same time O2 is released back into the atmosphere. When the plants die, the carbon moves into the soil. The hyphae of fungi release enzymes to decompose dead plants and captures carbon in the soil. Animals that ingest plants also take in carbon and simultaneously breathe out CO2 back into the atmosphere. Humans release excess amounts of carbon through burning fossil fuels from industrial farms and factories. Once the excess carbon is in the air, healthy forests, soils and oceans absorb and store it. Our natural ecosystem captures more CO2 out of the atmosphere than any other technology.
Humans however keep adding extra CO2 without removing most of it. We send waste to landfill, burn fossil carbon as fuel and drive gas-powered vehicles. On top of that, we disturb a lot of our soil by plowing and over-tilling, to the extent that we may have lost about half of the topsoil that natural processes produced over hundreds of years. Top soil rich in organic matter is critically important, for it helps soils hold onto water and nutrients and supports soil microbes that recycle nutrients. Lately, experts are adding microbes back to soils to enhance the percentage of plant carbon that is transformed into soil.
We urgently need to bring the carbon cycle back into balance. But it's important to note that climate change is not just about having too much carbon floating around in the atmosphere. It's actually also a symptom and manifestation of biodiversity loss, degraded soils, and dysfunctional, and broken ecosystems, so cutting down on the emissions from fossil fuels is not enough. It's extremely important to restore our lands and regenerate soils to strengthen their capacity to cycle carbon, water, nutrients, and energy, while better regulating healthy temperature. This is why our focus is now on regeneration, where we can meaningfully sequester carbon by rebalancing the entire farming system.
THE REGENERATIVE MOVEMENT
“The land is a living, breathing entity. If you love the land, the earth, it’ll love you back. It’s just the way it's always been…there’s no big secret to it.”— Archie Roach, Australian Artist and Activist
We need to rebuild our relationships with our land. We treated farms like industrial machines and introduced agrochemicals from as early as the 1840s which is eroding our soils, pushing wildlife, insects and plants into extinction. Industrial agriculture is responsible for about 30% of the world’s total emissions of greenhouse gases. But today there are several movements working to regenerate and revitalise rather than degenerate and degrade our ecosystems. Regenerative agriculture is increasingly becoming a part of our global agenda, and it's so much more than just improving the quality of our soil. It involves shifting our ways to those long held by indigenous cultures—recognising the interconnection between human and environmental well-being. It's a system that protects soil health and equitably distributes value, access to land and safe, thriving livelihoods for workers across the system. Unlike traditional farming methods, regenerative techniques avoid tillage and uses cover crops to prevent erosion and soil degradation. The process keeps carbon safely stored into the soil, increases plant diversity and integrates livestock creating a holistic system powered by natural elements working together.
In this collaborative effort, underground fungi are a key player for our soil to regenerate our agricultural landscapes. Studies show that the nutrition and growth of 98% of plants and bio-systems in nature depend on fungal symbiotic associations. But industrial farming and fertiliser overuse has significantly impaired the level and activity of these fungal symbioses. Today our soil is starving and so are we.
"Whatever is happening in the soil is happening in our bodies." - Josh Tickell, Author of Kiss the Ground
We eat the minerals, the waters, all biological life, the air to waves and frequencies through the entire surface of our bodies. The environment we create directly affects our health and when the environment changes, we are forced to change. Intensive agricultural practices are depleting our soils, stripping away essential nutrients which were once available in our fruits and vegetables. Polluted air and steadily rising temperatures also add to a number of other health concerns such as heart attacks, strokes, the spread of infectious diseases and food insecurity.
The nutrient content of crops has dramatically declined over the last 50 years. It's no surprise that many people intuitively feel that food today is losing its energy, vitality, and sweetness, and are stocking up on supplements.
"The current world's population including in developed countries is malnourished in nutrient elements and vitamins."
Studies indicate that the vitamin and mineral content of apples, oranges, and other ordinary fruits has declined on average 25 to 50% during the last generation. The study is a follow up to earlier research by the author showing that, common garden vegetables have lost large amounts of calcium, iron, and other essential elements since the 1960s and 1970s. Among all the fruits and vegetables, the nutritional value of broccoli showed the greatest decline.
DATA EXTRACTED FROM USDA FOOD COMPOSITION TABLES
The Organic Consumers Association cites several other studies with similar findings. From these studies, we can predict that the nutrient decline resulted from the continued erosion of the soil, air, water quality, reduced seed vitality from the aggressive use of chemical fertilisers.
Charles Massy, one of the most important voices of Australia’s regenerative farming movement, explains that “most of our cereal crops, the soybeans, the corn, are all predicated now on the world’s most widely used chemical which is glyphosate [Roundup]. There is mounting evidence that it is one of the most destructive chemicals ever to get into the system. Its main effect is on the human gut and our entire immune system." It manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body. He says that when we spray insects with insecticides we kill off the predators, and next time we'll need more powerful chemicals because the pests come back even stronger. Massy believes that human impact has altered the Earth’s geology and sustaining systems, causing ecological destruction and extinction of species. Healthy eating is impossible with unhealthy food production.
The impact of the climate on our food doesn't end there. Extreme weather patterns and frequent natural disasters are threatening the availability of the staple food we love. Due to rising sea levels, salt water is turning rice fields saltier, making it difficult to grow rice, the world's second largest crop. Studies predict that coastal communities with 1.3 billion residents and 200,000 farmers will be forced to move inland, as glaciers melt into the oceans.
Also, as the world warms it increases the methane emissions from rice paddies, and decreases the crop yield of rice. Methane is a greenhouse gas more than 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide. However recent studies showed that inoculating bacteria into rice paddies could reduce methane by over 90%. Researchers used a cable bacteria producing microbe to bring down these methane levels, by generating high levels of sulfates in the soil. These findings show us a new angle to the role of bacteria as helpers of the ecosystem.
The delicious foods we receive are generous offerings from the complex ecosystems, but they'll stop delivering if we continue to take them for granted. We're already losing our nutrients and accessibility of some foods, for neglecting our land. To turn this around, we need to evaluate a farm's success by the diversity and complexity of the ecosystems rather than measuring yields. We need to find ways to leverage the natural ecosystem functions in our soil instead of spraying away their physical symptoms. We may have mistaken control for care and have forgotten that nature has its own purpose that we can't manipulate.
BEING A PART OF THE NATURAL ECOSYSTEM
The next question is—how can we see soil and fungi just as they are and engage with them in ways that allow the systems to be wild and alive? Seeing is appreciation—of the diversity and the synergies between the soil, fungi, animals and plants. And to live with them we need to think for nature and like nature. We need to tap into our intuitive and native common sense and ask ourselves how we can reciprocate to the holistic system with respect.
Acknowledging a holistic system involves becoming conscious of our role on the receiving end. Our foods don't come from stores and shops, but from farms, soil, rain, sunshine and farmers who look after them. When we grow curious of the stories of our food, we are able to vote for better treatment of soils to protect our land. We can demand flavourful foods and at the same time support farms that use regenerative techniques such as rotating crops, no-till farming and avoid pesticides and synthetic fertilisers.
Composting our kitchen and yard waste also goes a long way. Almost one tonne of CO2 emissions is saved for every tonne of food waste not sent to landfill. We can create a habit of composting, reducing scraps that goes to landfill, while supplying our garden with nutrients.
In our backyards, we can plant a variety of trees, plants and shrubs native to the area, to help reconnect habitats and attract pollinators like bees. Native plants have formed a symbiotic relationship with native wildlife over thousands of years, and therefore, can offer the most helpful habitat.
To be a part of larger movements, we can engage with those who have the greatest influence in our systems and activate investments for regenerative projects. Many small farmers don't have the capacity to introduce new farming techniques when they are worried about competing with low food prices of large scale industrialised farms that degrade land. They require training and funding to adapt to regenerative practices without having to sell off their farm.
It's critical to back leaders proposing reforms to shift away from harmful industries. Statistics tell us that 71% of all global emissions come from just 100 fossil fuel producers. By burning fossil fuels, we pollute the air with carbon dioxide and nitrogen, which is associated with lower abundance of carbon-protecting mycorrhizal fungi. The loss of these fungi means that a lot of carbon is also being released back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, accelerating climate change.
Lastly, we should improve our climate literacy, and keep others in the loop about the state of the world, including important sustainability initiatives. Inadequate knowledge leads us into making dangerous decisions with immense consequences. We can foster ripples of change by sharing information and experiences to support others through their journeys on becoming responsible Earth citizens.
We are connected to the world with rich relationships and our ecologies are constantly engaging without barriers. All these years of land degradation has caused the inflammation of the Earth and our bodies. Our health is inextricably linked to the way we take care of our land and we can no longer deny our dependence on other species in our ecological systems. Our task is to extend our concerns a lot further than what we see with our eyes. By producing good food, we produce healthy people, and the quality of what we eat depends on what's far beyond our plates. It's time to stop separating ourselves from what we are inherently a part of, for in isolation even the incredible fungi can't do their job and supply the Earth with the medicine she desperately needs.
All photography are created by the artists as noted in the caption.
A new era of agriculture: how soil and mushrooms - can help solve the climate crisis. (2021) https://www.theguardian.com/climate-academy/ng-interactive/2020/nov/16/regenerative-agriculture-soil-and-mushrooms-help-solve-climate-crisis
Carbon explained: All you need to know about carbon dioxide. (2021) https://www.single.earth/blog/carbon-explained/
Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition: What Is the Evidence? (2009) https://journals.ashs.org/hortsci/view/journals/hortsci/44/1/article-p15.xml#B19
Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious? (2011) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/soil-depletion-and-nutrition-loss/
Ohlson, Kristin. (2014) The Soil Will Save Us. New York, NY: Rodale Inc.
Regenerative Agriculture: good practices for small scale agricultural producers. https://www.fao.org/publications/card/en/c/CB6018EN/