“We don’t grow plants, we grow soil. Soil grows plants”.
This is the most pertinent and profound statement I’ve heard in a long time. Most of us don’t think about soil or even growing food. Yet, if we ever pause to wonder what sustainable farming is and why it matters, this line says it all–every other consideration derives from it, in my opinion (animal husbandry aside).
It is one of the jewels captured in “Symphony of the Soil”, the latest project of film-maker Deborah Koons Garcia—she pioneered the food and farming documentary genre in 2004 with “The Future of Food”.
“Topsoil will have disappeared in 30 years if we keep farming we way we have”, she said this week to a small audience gathered by Bay Gourmet at the Commonwealth Club of California. She should know what she’s talking about: she has spent the past three years interviewing scientists and farmers in America, Europe and India about the most overlooked of three resources crucial to the existence of mankind: soil (the other two, you may have guessed, are water and sun).
The result is a two-part documentary and a series of shorts. I was privileged to get a 40-minute glimpse of it this week. Gorgeous photography and powerful music aside, it is a fabulous journey into the complexity and the beauty of a world that many of us, city dwellers, are oblivious to, and that organic farming pioneer Sir Albert Howard first tried to bring attention to in The Soil and Health: a study of organic farming (1945).
The conclusion is clear: there is no substitute for the innumerable relationships that teem underground, infusing plants with life and nutrients. Chemicals only kill the underground ecosystem that typically mirrors the one above. Which means that it’s only a matter of time before both ecosystems harmonize: desert above ground like desert underground. The more we wait the more irreversible it gets, since sterile soil turns to dust and becomes prone to devastating erosion.
Barring such extreme conditions, topsoil can be rebuilt much faster than it was destroyed. With sound practices involving compost and mulching, one can start getting good results in just about three years. Success stories abound in “The Symphony of the Soil”, thankfully, as powerful as any tale of redemption.
Deborah Koons Garcia spoke with me after her presentation. Listen to her sharing about “The Symphony of the Soil” project: