Dismissed as dirt, soil gets no respect from most of us. The gorgeously shot documentary Symphony of the Soil recasts the stuff as a key player in hot-button issues, such as water scarcity, climate change, and food security. Here, producer-director Deborah Koons Garcia answers questions about just a few of those issues.
Research from the Rodale Institute shows that in drought years, organic fields yield more crops than conventional fields relying on chemical fertilizers. Why do bioengineered plants continue to be touted as our best solution to global hunger?
Because the big chemical companies want farmers to be dependent on them! There are no bioengineered plants that have successfully produced more crop yield than non-bioengineered crops. In fact, there are indigenous plants in Asia and Africa that produce more during drought years than the crops being developed by Big Biotec. The “we need these to feed the word” hype has been proven over and over to be just that—hype developed specifically to appeal to the guilt of wealthier nations and to stop criticism of the ways that Big Biotec disrupts the agricultural systems of the people they claim they want to help.
Are biofuel crops like ethanol easing environmental problems or contributing to them? Why?
Ethanol production is very clearly contributing to environmental problems. In fact, the U.S. government has just cut back on the mandates for biofuels because of the damage done to the environment by the agricultural practices used in producing them. Here in the U.S., 99.9 percent of biofuels are made from [conventionally grown] corn, which uses more pesticides, more water, and more synthetic nitrogen leading to dead zones, nitrates in drinking water, and increased carbon dioxide released into the air. More energy is used in producing corn ethanol than is saved by it.
The Black Sea is one of the few dead zones—fed by a buildup of nitrogen—to have recovered, and that happened after a massive reduction in fertilizer runoff from fields in Russia and Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. What will it take to restore the Gulf of Mexico?
We need to cut way down on the amount of fertilizer used in this country. In organic agriculture, farmers do not use synthetic nitrogen but instead use crop rotation and cover crops to restore the fertility of the soil. Farmers often plant legumes as a cover crop—when they plow these into the soil, nitrogen is restored. It used to be common for farmers to plant cover crops, but the emphasis on high yield rather than soil health has led to the abandonment of the practice. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is now actively encouraging farmers to plant cover crops and is giving workshops all over the country to show farmers the benefits of this practice. Planting cover crops and plowing them into the soil can reduce nitrogen runoff by 70 percent. Or farmers can go organic and eschew synthetic nitrogen altogether, a much healthier way to treat the soil. If the farmers in the Midwest used more agroecological practices [which are agriculturally productive but also resource conserving], the dead zone in the Gulf would diminish and maybe even disappear.