Soil — from dirt to lifeline: Fred Kirschenmann at TEDxManhattan


Translator: Rhonda Jacobs
Reviewer: Denise RQ For some of you it may seem strange
to talk about soil in a conference about food. And the reason for that
is because food for most of us – we’ve created a food culture
that essentially sees food as a commodity. For many of us, we don’t even know
why it has anything to do with food. And I want you to know,
I’m not a soil scientist; as you’ve heard, I’m a farmer. But I have the privilege and the honor of having an association
of colleagues and friends who have helped a lot with this, and so I want you to recognize
the credits that I want to give for all the people that have helped in helping me talk about
both soil and food. In this food culture in which food
is essentially a commodity, most of us, I think, in our culture today,
simply think about soil as dirt. It’s simply that black stuff
that’s out there. And even some of our soil scientists
have occasionally talked about soil as simply a material
to hold a plant in place, and the way we grow food
is everything else that we do – all the synthetic fertilizers
that we put in, the pesticides that we use, that’s what we use to raise food, and soil is just sort of there. But in point of fact, soil is critical. And what I want to do this afternoon
is to help you understand some of that. And in the first place,
the first thing to understand, is that soil is not dirt. Soil is, in fact, a very vibrant,
living community. In fact, soil scientists,
some of the things they tell us now, is there are more living organisms
beneath the surface of the soil than there are
above the surface of the soil. And it isn’t just all
of the things that we can see, the earthworms
and the beetles and the ants, but it is those microorganisms
which dominate all of our soil culture. In fact, as near as I can tell, soil scientists can’t even
come to an agreement about how many microorganisms
there are in soil. I’ve seen some soil
scientists refer to that as 50 million microorganisms
in a single teaspoonful of soil, and others have said it could be
as much as two and four billion. So this is a community of life, and if we’re going to have
not only good food but any food at all, we have to sustain
that community of life in the soil. So this is one of the things
that I want to help us understand today, And so, if it wasn’t for
that community of life, we wouldn’t have any food,
we wouldn’t have any water, we wouldn’t have any of us. And so I love the way
Wes Jackson puts this because not only are we so dependent
on all of that life for our life, but as we all know, eventually,
we return to soil, right? So the way Wes has put this is that we are simply stopovers
between soil and soil. (Laughter) And I think it’s important for us
to try to appreciate that as we try to come to understand
changing the way we eat because we’re not going
to change the way we eat unless we recognize what we have to do
in supporting our soil. Now, there are a couple
of problems with this, and one of those problems
is that currently, in the way in which
we are producing our food, we are losing our soil
at unprecedented rates. Just in the last half century, we’ve lost
about half of our topsoil in this country. And not only have we lost it,
but we also have degraded it. A recent study just came out
by the United Nations which has indicated that 25% of the remaining soil
on our planet is now degraded. In other words,
it no longer has the vitality to produce the kind of food
that we’ve all heard today that we need. The other thing is that soil
is essentially not a renewable material, it’s not a renewable resource, because it has taken the earth
millions of years to accumulate this soil. So unless you want to hang around
for a million years, it’s going to be very difficult
to see this soil that we’ve lost and are losing, restored. So I want to share with you
just about a minute and a half from a wonderful documentary which Deborah Koons Garcia has spent
the last four years putting together, and it’s going to be released
to the public in March of this year called “Symphonies of Soil,” and I hope all of you get a chance
to see it when it comes out, but John Reganold who is a soil scientist
at Washington State University, in the beginning of this film, tells us how nature developed
and accumulated this soil in the various landscapes. Well, let’s take just a moment
and listen to John tell his story. (Video) John Reganold: Soils have parents,
just like we have parents, so they came from somewhere. And soils form from some material
that’s in a particular location. So in this location, we had wind-blown
sediments that came in, and you have these loose sediments
that are mostly silt-sized particles called loess – L-O-E-S-S,
with some clay and some sand, and then soil formed. That kind of material is transported. It’s transported parent material
because it came in by the wind. Other types of parent material
can come in by the water. You can have rivers that overflow,
like along the Mississippi, they deposit alluvium. Water rushes out of a mountain range,
it might drop a lot of material, like an alluvial fan. When they deposit that material,
new soils form in that material. And then we also have
glacially-transported material – soils that formed in glacial sediment. When those glaciers melt,
they drop the material. We also have soils
that are not transported. We have soils that form in place. Right where we’re standing now,
we’re on a butte, kind of an old mountain range. This particular mountain, the soils formed
from rock in place. It was exposed;
after probably a million years, we had a soil that actually
formed in that rock. So transported soils – rough to say, I’m guessing 70-75% of our soils
formed in transported parent material. Then another 25% formed
in soils that are in place. A lot of those are up in the mountains. Fred Kirschenmann: OK,
so it’s taken millions of years for nature to accumulate this soil. Now, there’s another problem: that is, that we’re losing soil now
at even faster rates, primarily because as climate change
is coming into the picture, we have more severe weather events. So this was what
a lot of the landscape looked like in the heartland where we have
some of the richest soil in the spring of 2008
when we had two weeks of incredibly heavy rainfalls, and this is what we saw
on the landscape out there, so we’ve been losing that soil now, and it’s threatened at a much, much faster
rate even than we have in the past. So now it’s easy to simply
blame the farmers, and say, “Well, look, the farmers
ought to be better stewards, they ought to take better care of this,” but the point is that we have all
been part of creating a food system that puts farmers in the position
where they have to do simply one thing, and that is, produce as much of the food
as cheaply as possible. And so what they do now, what they have been
put into a position to do, is to concentrate the animals in one place
as we’ve heard about earlier today, because that is presumably
a more efficient way to produce meat, and, our crops are now produced
in these huge monocultures, because again, it’s a more efficient
way to produce food in as cheap a way as possible, so the landscape now looks like this. So we don’t have any of that diversity
that’s a part of a necessity of creating that biologically healthy soil that actually feeds
all of that living community beneath the surface of the soil. Now fortunately – you could be tired of hearing
me talk about all the problems – there is some good news, because we do know
that there are alternatives. A friend of mine, Matt Liebman,
who is an agronomist at Iowa State University,
has now done eight years of research in which he has simply looked
in these research plots as a simple thing. Suppose that instead of having
this two-year rotation, that specialize in just corn and beans, we had a three-year rotation,
where you have the corn and beans, and then you have a small grain
with clover interseeded, and then the clover,
of course, is a legume, so it fixes nitrogen in the soil, and then you incorporate that rich,
green plant material as a green manure into the soil – all of that begins to feed
that living community in the soil that it needs. Or, compare it with a four-rotation
where you have corn and beans, and then the small grain with alfalfa,
and then another year of alfalfa. What Matt has discovered
if you do that, we could reduce our pesticide use by 97%, we could [reduce our synthetic]
fertilizers by a little over 90%, and the return
to land and labor for farmers could actually be somewhat higher than it is in this specialized
corn and soybean rotation. And a farmer by the name
of Dick Thompson in Iowa has in fact adopted some
of this kind of diversified farming. And what soil scientists have discovered, instead of having 18,000 earthworms
per acre in his fields which are fairly typical;
that may sound like a lot to you, but on Dick’s farms
there are 1.3 million earthworms. And the organic matter, instead
of being a little over 2% organic matter, is now 6.5% on his farm. So we do know some of the things
that we need to do. Here’s what the difference is
in what the soil looks like in that two-year rotation
and the three- and four-year rotation – it’s more porous,
it has more organic matter, it’s that community,
that habitat that’s needed in order to produce
the kind of food that we need. And then at the Land Institute
in Salina Kansas where geneticists
have now been developing a perennial variety of grain
like wheat and sorghum, etc., instead of an annual, if you look on the left-hand side, that’s the root system
from a perennial crop; on the right-hand side,
from an annual crop. It’s a much more dense root system, goes into the soil 15-18 [inches], makes the plant more drought resistant, and of course, again, does exactly
what needs to be done in that soil habitat for all of that living
community in the soil. And again, here’s the living evidence: the hand on your right-hand side – this is, incidentally,
all from the same field, it’s just that on the right-hand side is where the perennial
crop is being grown, on the left-hand side
is where the annual crop is being grown. And again, that’s the community,
on the right-hand side, that a living community needs. And then we have
both researchers and farmers who are now working
with winter cover crops. In other words, when you simply
use soil to grow food, then you have living
plant materials on there probably four or five months
out of the year. The rest of the time the soil lays idle;
it’s not an ideal condition for all of that living
community in the soil. If you put a winter cover crop on there,
you have all kinds of benefits. The cover crops take up
a lot of the nitrogen and other nutrients in the soil, and they hold it in the plant
over the winter months so it doesn’t leach off
into streams into ground water, and off into the dead zone
in the Gulf of Mexico, but it stays there
on the surface of the soil. And then when you go back
to planting food crop again, you incorporate that into the soil and put those nutrients
back into the soil. And then again,
together with some compost, here’s what you see,
what the soil looks like when you use these winter cover crops. And again, provides that community for all of those living
organisms in the soil. And then we have another approach,
which is using what’s called permaculture. in which, especially young farmers, are now finding ways to regard the farm,
really like an organism, where all of the plants and the animals
in the system support each other and provide the goods
and services for each other, which again, enables
this healthy soil to emerge, and animals can perform
all kinds of services. Here, for example, turkeys
are out there in a squash field eating the insects, so it takes care of that
so you don’t have to have an insecticide. All of these benefits. And then, of course,
compost is absolutely critical in all of these
different kinds of approaches. Adding compost and using all of this- you know, roughly 80% of the material
that we put out on our curb to have the garbage collectors pick up
and goes into landfills could be composted, and could be used to restore the soil
in our own communities. And again, this is what the soil
looks like when you add that. Now, how are we going
to bring about these changes? Well, part of it is
the changes are going to come because all of the resources that we use
to maintain our current system without paying attention to the soil, like oil, like phosphorus,
like rock phosphate, all of these materials,
we’re drawing down, and as we do, they become more expensive. And as this recent study
at the United Nations points out, every time that the cost of that energy
that we need to produce that food goes up, the cost of food goes up. So at some point it’s simply
going to become unaffordable. Now that’s the dark side of what’s
going to bring about the changes. You probably wouldn’t have expected
a photograph of chefs in a story about soil. But we now have a new school of chefs
that we call the farm-to-table chefs, and they have discovered
that the easiest way, the most effective way to get the kind of taste that they want in the food that they want
to serve their customers, is by having the food
grown in this kind of rich soil. They are now rewarding farmers,
working with farmers, to manage the soil this way,
to produce the food this way, and to serve it in their restaurants. And then we have
a new generation of young people all across this country
who want to do this. They want to learn
how to manage the soil this way; they want to learn
how to produce food this way, and to produce the food for those chefs, and for farmers markets and for CSAs so that all of us can acquire it. Then there’s that next generation
behind this generation, and that’s the children. All across this country now
we’re starting to have [little] gardens; we are starting to have children coming out to places
like the Stone Barn Center where I’m connected. We have 10,000 children now that come
to learn about how to care for soil and how to grow food, and they’re going to become
the next generation enabling us to do this. And then there’s something that anyone
of you can do and individuals are doing, and that is that you can either buy
or even make your own compost bin for your own backyard. And all of those food wastes
in your kitchen and leaves in your yard
can be turned into compost and put into your own garden,
put on your own lawn. And this is one of the most
important things that all of us can do and need to do because the most important inheritance
that we can leave for our children is biologically healthy soil. It is our lifeline to the future and every one of us
can help make that happen. Thank you. (Applause)

36 thoughts on “Soil — from dirt to lifeline: Fred Kirschenmann at TEDxManhattan

  1. @Beligerentt1 the problem is, that the really good soil, aka peat, is almost gone.
    Afaik there are only a handful of areas worldwide where the really good peat can be harvested.

  2. @liquidminds, well said. thats unfortunate that we have destroyed the majority of it. I think we should have taken queues from Africans, who for thousands of years perfected soil management. oh well

  3. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him (our soil) . We have the technology.. We can start working with nature instead of against it. I teach how each individual person can do their part.

  4. @KimbleyComputer After finally receiving the money from the Acustic-Aid-Industry lobbyist for hear-impairing thousands of people with the loud intro, they can finally afford to record with HD-cams.
    The Suffering wasn't in vain.

  5. @liquidminds Peat is not a good soil it is very acidic and many plants that grow on peat feast on insects and small creatures. It takes years to create peat from the decomposition of plants around the area. The Really good soil is soil with beneficial fungi, worms, inorganic and organic matter. Substitute coconut husk fibers for peat moss, because coconut husk fibers are not a landscape, but an object of organic matter.

  6. @Forestofthyme Peat has a lot of nutrients. I guess that's why it's used so often.
    But I agree. I do prefer Coco as it has the same handling soil has, but several advantages like that it is organic matter or that is nutrient-free, allowing custom nutrition or that the buffer-effect is only about half as long as in soil, allowing more direct nutrition of plants than Soil.
    I'm all for coco.

  7. @alaskaoils You can still grow food in and on the building, so no you can still grow food on the soil, but you can no longer grow directly into the soil. The hypothesis does not support the info. he presented.

  8. @growingyourgreens To rebuild soil add organic matter and possible worms/decomposers (which includes fungi/mold (will be on organic matter)). Then you wait a month/year. You can even use your own urine as liquid fertilizer.

  9. Great talk, really enjoyed it and him touching on the importance of soil microbes in relation to plant health.

  10. It took nature millions of years to build soil. We can build soil in less than a decade. But we are not. Soil is being destroyed faster than it is created. This is due to mass ignorance. Organic produce should and would be cheaper if it was chosen over commercial produce. People would be healthier. The few who chose organic are helping themselves survive and our species. Commercial farming is unsustainable. It is a short sighted pursuit of profit, typical of big corporations and government working together for their special interest at the expense of everybody else. But this is made possible by the masses who allow their lives to be controlled by TPTB. A grassroots revolt dedicated to decentralized power, self reliance, and individual responsibility is needed to stop this insane species suicide. 

  11. Such an important message and yet the video has only 18k views. While some half retarded bearded guy gets hundreds of thousands views. Mankind has no hope.

  12. I love your programs, they bring such important and timely information to the attention of the public.  But I, like many "seniors," have hearing loss.  Could you see that all your presentations include captions so we can better understand every word?  Thank you.

  13. We need to design our society, by growing locally, as long as we have to transport food from states to states, countries to countries, no much gonna change. We need permaculture!;) 

  14. This is a good informative video and well presented. Having watched a few you tube videos on soil and composting, I have concluded that soil that is compacted and dry becomes dirt and that all that was good in the soil is now dead. Dig it up, turn it over and wet it and it starts to look like soil again but it's still dead. Turning in some composted organic matter, leaves, grass, seaweed etc reintroduces some life and makes the soil better year on year. Just use what nature provides. That's it!

  15. "We are stop overs between soil and soil…25% of the remaining soil on our planet is degraded…" 
    America: the answer is simple. Stop eating meat. 

  16. i think its TRAGIC that for as long as these talks have been online they arent getting any real views and its  either a sign of our stupidity ,or its a specific group blocking views , regardless of why this information isnt getting out to enough people  we can do something about it by sharing and ACTING to correct  the problem , or be happy with the problem and let it be our undoing

  17. Do what you should, and share with others.  100th monkey  phenomenon.  Right now I compost, vermicompost, and brew compost tea. I live in an area that gets very little water.   My yard has no grass.  I have shrubs and trees, that once established do not need supplemental watering.  No chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, nor pesticides.  I augment the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and insects that are beneficial, leaving little space for those that are harmful.  Typical soil here is heavy clay and layers of limestone shale.  My yard looks like about 15 inches of bagged potting soil.  The vegetable garden is healthy and I buy very little produce from the local farmer's market to augment it. For meat I eat game.  Axis, Red deer, whitetail, dove, crane, duck that I process myself.  Neighbors attitudes have evolved from "what in the world are you doing", to "that looks nice…you don't water? or Mow?" and " you gave me your recipe but it just doesn't taste the same".  One step at a time folks.  Bring them along.

  18. monSATAN and their toxic GMO's are destroying the earths soil…those monsters need to be STOPT before its to late for humanity!

  19. I have been studying Fred Kirschenmann for several years now. Fantastic information and fery well delivered. A great follow up to this is more toward resilient future is this video. https://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change?language=en
    Pass the word to others. To get others to move toward positive actions, give them something simple that they can do, such as start growing food in their lawns rather than fertilising, polluting, and wasting water (grow local food).

  20. Britain has used this system for ever. Cut your field sizes down and put the animals back on the land and rotate crops to help the land instead of killing it with pesticides.

  21. Why on earth do the majority of people think that we need so much corn? So much grains and soy? Because we have been brainwashed to think so! Biodiversity is NATURE'S OWN model.
    http://permaculturenews.org/2015/05/03/permaculture-soils-geoff-lawton/

  22. " …the cornfield as a metaphor for what a mass extinction might be like, where the Earth becomes "lots of one thing and not much of any other." . . . Cornstalks Everywhere But Nothing Else, Not Even A Bee!

    http://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2012/11/29/166156242/cornstalks-everywhere-but-nothing-else-not-even-a-bee

  23. I essentially stopped listening when he said that soil is not a renewable resource and takes millions of years to make. A good soil scientist like Dr. Elaine Ingham (look her up, here) can take any substrate (sand/clay/silt/dirt) and turn it into a living, nutrient-rich soil in days by adding the right biology. Yes, aerobic compost and compost tea made from it (in one day) can work miracles.

  24. There is no need to even raise unnatural pigs in captivity, here in the United States we have feral hogs all over our country and in most states they do not belong and destroy local environments and animals habitats, in top of that we have lots of farmers who can shoot, why not hire local farmers, hunters and trackers in these states, hire local butchers, and people's who job it is to do field cleaning and transport. We could help the environment by hunting destructive animals, put hunters, field cleaners, drivers and butchers to work and help restore native animals by killing these wild hogs.

    Another example is Kudzu, it's an invasive, very invasion be species killing off while forests all over America. However, it is edible and medicinal. Why not hire people to harvest it? Hire people who are willing to travel to build noble prep stations to put it in different forms for different uses. Then after areas that it has been mostly removed, hire locals, train them to do controlled burns, then hire some to collect native seeds, others to grow these seeds until they can be transplanted and reforestation decimated area's. Again, putting people to work, two going exotic destructive problem, use for food and medicine.

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