April 5, 2010 by Julia Wasson
Filed under 2010, Agriculture, Blog, Composting, Conservation, Desertification, Drought, DVDs, Environment, Events, Front Page, Movie Reviews, Slideshow, Soil, Sustainability
Since the beginning of time, of all the planets in all the galaxies in the known universe, only one has a living, breathing skin called dirt. — Dirt! The Movie
We wash it off our hands, our clothes, our cars, our bodies. We walk on it, drive on it, dig in it, build on it. We bury our loved ones in it. And in it we grow the plants that feed us. But how much do we really know about the dirt beneath our feet?
Unless you are a farmer or an active gardener, you may never have given much thought to our planet’s skin. Although I love to garden and have, at times, raised a good share of my family’s produce, it turns out there’s an awful lot I don’t know about dirt. Maybe that’s true for you, too.
Recently, I received an advance copy of Dirt! The Movie, a documentary that opened my mind to the wonders of soil. I’ve watched a lot of great videos in the past year: Food Inc., A River of Waste, Blue Gold: World Water Wars, Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai and more. Each one has been fascinating — sometimes disturbing. And each has huge value in educating regular folk like me about both the potential and the problems facing our planet.
But Dirt!, directed and produced by Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow, stands out for me, probably because the content is so surprising and enlightening. Let’s face it, few of us talk very deeply about dirt in our daily conversations. We may complain about the health of the local rivers and waterways. We may talk about the horrible chemicals added to processed foods, the pesticides and herbicides that coat our foods. But it’s not often that we discuss worms and microbes and the exchange of nutrients in the soil. (Well, maybe you do.)
When I say the film was “surprising,” I may be admitting my ignorance. Did you know that dirt’s alive? I didn’t. I never really thought of dirt as much more than a medium in which to grow things. Yet there are millions of living, working microbes in a single handful of dirt. These microbes are an essential part of life on Planet Earth. Without them, our soil would not support the bigger varieties of life – the plants and animals, including us humans. Living dirt. What a concept!
When I write a review of a film or book, I like to include quotes that illustrate the topic and entice people to view or read the subject of my post. But I encountered a problem while watching Dirt! — I found myself wanting to quote nearly every line in the film.
There are probably a couple dozen experts interviewed in Dirt!, covering a wide variety of disciplines and viewpoints. Each contributes valuable insights to the discussion. We hear from diverse sources around the globe, such as the following:
- Vandana Shiva, physicist, farmer, and activist in India
- Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Laureate and founder of Kenya’s Greenbelt Movement
- Gary Vaynerchuk, wine expert and host of Wine Library TV
- Janine Benyus, biologist and writer, the Biomimicry Project
- Peter Girguis, assistant professor of biology, Harvard University
- Miguel Altieri, entomologist at UC Berkeley
- Sebastiao and Lélia Salgado, photographers and co-founders of Instituto Terra
- James Jiler, director of the Greenhouse Project at Riker’s Island prison facility
- Andy Lipkis, founder and president of Tree People
We also hear from less public figures, like the young couple who use dirt mixed with horse manure as a building material in California; prisoners and ex-prisoners regaining their dignity and their lives through the Riker’s Island Greenhouse Project or by participating in the Green Team after-release program founded on the same principles. We learn how digging one’s hands in dirt to nurture a living plant can redeem a human life.
Here’s a sampling of the comments I found so intriguing:
We think that diamonds are very important, gold is very important — all these minerals are very important. We call them “precious” minerals, but they are all forms of the soil. But that part of this mineral that is on top, like it is the skin of the earth, that is the most precious…. — Wangari Maathai
Our wealth is imaginary. It comes from soil. — Janine Benyus
If we don’t take care of the soil, which is just the first five centimeters of life that is on the earth, our future is totally condemned. — Miguel Altieri
We take the soil for granted because it’s there, it’s everywhere, except when all of it is taken by the wind or by the running water. And then you are left with bare rock, and you realize you can’t do much with bare rock. — Wangari Maathai
The process that turns garbage into a garden is central to our survival. We depend on dirt to purify and heal the systems that sustain us. — Peter Girguis
But the film isn’t just about inspiring a new respect for dirt. It talks frankly about the practices of business that are causing horrendous environmental harm. For example, professor David Orr, Oberlin College, says of dirt, “This is a fabric of life being torn apart that can never be put back together again….
The practice of coal mining that’s called mountain top removal — it’s strip mining with a vengeance with equipment the scale of which is difficult to conceive. Mountains are literally cut off and leveled, and they’re being destroyed in the name of cheap of electricity. It isn’t cheap at all. It’s unbelievably expensive. The attitude toward nature that says, “Nature is only resources to be used, and not for the benefit of everyone but for the benefit of a very, very small number of people at a very, very thin slice of time in this human journey.
So the coal companies can come in and blast and remove one layer of what they call “overburden.” The overburden is a boulder field, which will have no water table. That will support no vegetation. And the mountaintops, with all the things that are in mountains, the heavy metals, cadmium and selenium, all of that now is free to get out into the watershed. — David Orr
Our cities, too, disrespect the land beneath us. In file footage from 1990, Andy Lipkis, founder of Tree People, says,
“We took the rivers and encased them in concrete. We paved literally two-thirds of Los Angeles so that now, when it does rain, instead of being absorbed by the soil, the water runs off. And it’s billions and billions of gallons.
The City of Los Angeles itself spends close to a billion dollars a year to bring in water from as far away as Wyoming and Utah…. They don’t need to. We have half the water falling here now, but because we’ve sealed the dirt and sent the water away, 20% of our electricity is to bring water here. So when you turn on the tap, it’s a climate change event.”
Monoculture Threatens the Soil
The narrator, Jamie Lee Curtis, tells us in a voice over, “Throughout history, we’ve seen civilizations rise and fall based on how they treated dirt.” This is illustrated in the documentary with video from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the 1930s, resulting from monoculture farming practices that killed the soil and left it to erode in the wind.
Vandana Shiva warns, “Monocultures don’t produce more, they produce less. Monocultures produce nothing for the soil. The idea that we are increasing soil fertility and productivity through industrial monocultures is one of the biggest lies.… What this system produces is food empty of nutrients but loaded with toxics. We weren’t designed to eat that kind of diet.”
Describing another problem associated with monoculture farming, Janine Benyus says, “We have this one species planted for miles, and it’s a all-you-can–eat restaurant for pests. So once a pest learns to unlock the key and get into one kind of plant, and you’ve got that plant planted for miles around, it can open every single plant. … [T]hat’s how pest epidemics get going, so then we add pesticides.”
Of course, the heavy application of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers brings with it problems, too, from compromising the health of the workers who apply it and the residents who live nearby to serious water pollution.
Maathai tells us, “When we pump those nitrogen fertilizers into the soil, we’re not just killing the life of the soil. This is mobile nitrogen.”
Berkeley’s Altieri adds, “Only about 20% [of the nitrogen] is taken up by the plant. Some of it goes into water tables and the rest goes into rivers.” And, as many of us are aware, in the central part of the United States this leads to the massive dead zone that continues to expand in the Gulf of Mexico. You might be surprised, as I was, to learn that this mobile nitrogen doesn’t just pollute the water. Curtis goes on to say, “Mobile nitrogen combines with oxygen to make nitrous oxide that floats up to the atmosphere” as a greenhouse gas.
Here’s another tidbit I found scary and frustrating. “Each year 100 million trees are turned into 20 billion mail order catalogs.” How many of those catalogs are actually used by the recipients? Think about your own home. Do you toss catalogs as soon as you get them? Are they worth the expense to the company publishing and mailing them? And more important, are they worth the cost to the environment in killed trees that could be serving as oxygen producers and carbon sinks? Not to me, at least.
Degradation and Reclamation
There’s so much information packed into this film that I can only touch on a small part of it. If you watch this film, you’ll learn about the catastrophic effects of genetically modified organisms on small-scale, international agriculture. You’ll discover why the narrator says, “In India over the last decade an estimated 200,000 farmers have killed themselves, many by drinking the pesticide they can no longer afford.”
You’ll clearly see what photographer Sebastiao Salgado means when he says, “You start to see that there is a very strong correlation between human degradation and environmental degradation.”
But you’ll also rejoice that soil can be reclaimed, forests can be replanted, and lives can be rebuilt through a healthy relationship with dirt.
You’ll be amazed by microbial fuel cells, which can light a room using the living energy of the microbes in soil.
You’ll learn about people who have turned desert land into arable soil. You may well find yourself inspired to plant something, even if only a potted plant on your desk or a small backyard garden.
And at the end of the film, don’t be surprised if you find yourself agreeing with Wangari Maathai, when she says, “Even though what you are doing may be very small, may be very insignificant as far as you’re concerned, collectively, if so many of us … are doing the same thing, we would accomplish a lot.”
A Film Worth Sharing
Watching Dirt! The Movie is an experience worth sharing. Packed with information that is alternately troubling and inspiring — but mostly inspiring — it’s a totally accessible film about a fascinating subject. I guarantee you’ll come away from this film with a new respect for the soil that keeps us all alive on this planet.
Dirt! The Movie, from Common Ground Media, will be released by docuramafilms on April 6, 2010. Dirt! has been honored as an Official Selection of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, is the Winner in the Green Documentary category at the Maui Film Festival, the Winner of Best Film for Our Future at the Mendocino Film Festival, and Winner of Best Documentary at Visions Voices Environmental Film Festival.
You can watch the broadcast premiere on PBS’ Independent Lens on April 20th at 10 p.m. nationwide. (Check your local listings to verify the time.) Better yet, purchase your own copy of the film on the Dirt! The Movie website. It’s a film you’ll likely want to watch more than once — and, chances are, you’ll learn something new each time.
DISCLOSURE: Blue Planet Green Living received a free copy of Dirt! The Movie in order to review it for this post. No other compensation or incentive was provided.
Blue Planet Green Living has an affiliate relationship with Amazon.com. If you purchase this film or any other products through Amazon by clicking on our affiliate link, Blue Planet Green Living will receive a small financial compensation from Amazon, which we use to sustain this website.
Blue Planet Green Living’s review policy is to only review those films we feel merit overall positive comments. If we do not like a film, we do not review it. We are not influenced by complimentary copies and provide our honest opinions. For more information, please visit the Policies tab on the top navigation bar.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
On a recent drive through rural Iowa, Joe and I stopped to talk with an elderly farmer. The first thing he said to us was how concerned he is about Iowa’s topsoil. It’s blowing off the fields and into the waterways. He plants row crops and uses some terracing to hold the soil, but still, it blows away. And he’s concerned.
As we drove a little farther, we stopped at a bridge. We walked out and looked at the river. Most of it was silt in the middle, with a little bit of water flowing around the edges. This was a dramatic representation of the farmer’s concerns. The soil in Iowa — and other states — is leaving the fields at an alarming rate.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) asked Angie Tagtow, a registered dietitian who serves as a Food and Society Policy Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy out of Minneapolis, to speak to the issue of soil quality in farmland. Tagtow previously served 10 years at the Iowa Department of Public Health. This is Part Two of a two-part interview. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
TAGTOW: Having a registered dietitian talk about environmental resources and natural resources conservation is a little bit of an anomaly — I am often drawn to the work of Sir Albert Howard, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry and Fred Kirschenmann. But the justification is there, because if you don’t have a healthy environment, you’re not going to be able to produce healthy food.
For me, the connection to soil started on our property more than 15 years ago. We live north of Elkhart, Iowa, and when we bought the property, we didn’t have the means of taking care of it. So we continued to cash-rent it to the farmer who sold it to us. Over the years, we noticed that we had a tremendous amount of erosion. We had flooding. We were witnessing a lot of destruction that we were not prepared to observe.
There was another thing that was quite disturbing — and this was anecdotal, not evidence based, but it supports a lot of the evidence out there. We have dogs that we take for a walk every evening around the perimeter of our land. We were cash-renting our land in 1999, and I happened to be on vacation one day in July or August when the Co-op came by and sprayed the soybeans. I didn’t think about it at the time, because it was part of our landscape; we see these folks almost every day on the road or in the field.
We took our ritual walk that evening, and within 24 hours, both dogs were sick. We noticed it was a perennial problem; both dogs would throw up at certain times of the year. But it didn’t really connect with me until after I was home that day and watched them spray the field. We decided, that because we did not know what chemicals were being put on the land, with the massive erosion, and the fact that our vegetable gardens near the house wouldn’t grow well, that we really needed to make a change. So in 2001, we planted our field in native tall-grass prairie.
Since then, we have seen a tremendous growth in the biodiversity of not only plant life, but insects and small animals. We even have worms. We didn’t have worms before, but we didn’t know that at the time, because everything was sanitized. So we’ve really been able to nourish the land again and restore it to the way it was. And we’re devoted to assuring that the biodiversity and the soil and water health continue. You see, biodiversity is the quintessential measure of overall health.
Folks don’t realize that we continue to lose a whole lot of soil every year. The Iowa Daily Erosion Project actually measures the amount of soil lost in Iowa. Just in 2008 alone — now, mind you, we had the floods in June of 2008 — about two-thirds of the counties had pockets that lost between 24 and 56 tons of soil per acre. And that’s just in 12 months.
What we often don’t think about is that once the soil is gone, it’s gone. It’s a finite resource. The question that I ask people is, What is your landscape going to look like in 50 or 100 years? Because when the soil is gone, we’re not going to have farms. Right now, 86 percent of Iowa’s landscape is in row crop production. 86 percent.
BPGL: We’ll be a dust bowl.
TAGTOW: If we have two to three years of drought, we’re going to be in dire straits. The connection between soil and biodiversity and healthy food has been near and dear to my heart, because I’ve experienced first hand the destruction of what conventional, industrial agricultural production in Iowa is all about.
Changing Policy to Conserve the Soil
BPGL: I can imagine someone reading this and saying, “Fine. You can afford to put your land into prairie grass, but I need to produce with my land.” What recommendation do you make to farmers who need to have their land in production but want to do better than they’re doing now?
TAGTOW: It comes back to incentives to farmers out of federal agriculture policy. Even though US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan have only been in office for a little over half a year, we’re already seeing significant changes in farm policies. Some new conservation stewardship programs are being launched this year — and they’re finally being funded. Farmers can look to these policies as an opportunity for increasing their land conservation and stewardship.
There needs to be greater incentive to farmers to do some things that conserve the soil, that clean the water and clean the air on their land, that decrease reliance on fossil fuels. Right now, our policies do not provide incentives to farmers to do that — in fact the current farm policies support large-scale, mono-cropping systems. The incentives for growing as much corn and soybeans as possible are greater than incentives for conserving the land, at this point.
BPGL: What kind of policy would you like to see regarding protection of the waterways from the chemicals that farmers apply — if they insist on applying chemicals?
TAGTOW: One thing we may see in the near future is that it’s almost becoming cost-prohibitive to apply farm chemicals unless you’re a very, very large corporate farm. So the cost of inputs may be the incentive for not applying them, which could possibly improve our water resources here in Iowa. But once again, we’re looking at conservation measures within policies that need to be changed. Can farmers be paid to increase their buffer strips around low-lying areas, around prairie pot holes, and around streams and rivers and lakes, or to grow cover crops?
Another part of this discussion is the application of manure from large-scale livestock facilities and the concentration of antibiotics, hormones or other toxins in that manure. However, I also want to note that the issues surrounding Iowa’s water quality is not solely linked to industrial farms. We need to closely examine waste-water discharge policies pertaining to homes, communities and businesses. There are opportunities for strengthening requirements and enforcements of waste-water discharge.
BPGL: We pretty much have a monoculture here in Iowa, with either corn or soybeans being grown year after year after year. What are your thoughts on the lack of biodiversity in this state (and perhaps in other states, with other crops)?
TAGTOW: We need to establish incentives for diversifying crops. It goes back to the conservation measure again. Right now we have such a fragile system in the fact that we’ve got 86 percent of Iowa’s landscape enrolled in agriculture — which is about 30 million acres. And knowing that the majority of that land is in two crops multiplies Iowa’s vulnerability and fragility. If one of those crops fails, for whatever reason, it puts the whole state in an economic bind.
From a biodiversity standpoint, this is where I connect it back to the health, not only environmental health, but being able to produce a food supply that promotes the health of Iowans as well. Back in the 1920s to 1930s, Iowa actually produced about 34 different crops — most of which actually stayed in Iowa and fed Iowans. Half of those crops at the time were fruits and vegetables. And we know that fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are the foods that promote good health.
Since then, because of farm policy, because we have treated growing food as an economic driver versus growing food to support the food and health needs of Iowans, we have decreased the number of food crops that are actually grown in Iowa to about 11. And that is determined based on [crops produced by] at least one percent of the farms. If you look at that list of 11, based on the last US farm census, none of those are fruits and vegetables. We lost our fruits and vegetables on a significant scale back in the 1940s and 50s. We really haven’t grown a significant amount of fruits and vegetables in 50 or 60 years.
We need to put policies in place that offer incentives and supports to new or transitioning farmers to grow what the USDA likes to call “specialty crops” — fruits and vegetables. This is another way of both increasing the biodiversity of the foods that are grown here in Iowa, which is going to create better balance within the ecosystem, and providing increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables to Iowans that we haven’t had in the past. We’ve got a lot of farmers’ markets out there, which is great, but it’s pretty small in comparison to the amount of land that’s already dedicated to feeding livestock or producing ethanol.
BPGL: It seems an almost impossible challenge when farmers have so much money invested in their CAFOs or their equipment for farming corn and soybeans. How do you get farmers to change? Obviously, there need to be economic incentives, as you described, but is it doable?
TAGTOW: I think it is, but it’s going to take a long time. What is exciting is the creativity and ingenuity farmers do have in making conservation practices work. Unfortunately, I think something pretty significant needs to happen in order to create a 45-degree turn in the direction that we’re going. However, there are some great programs that are being launched, not only through USDA but also through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. They’re small, but they do represent change in a very positive direction to improve the health of Iowa.
There are also programs being offered by nonprofit organizations, such as Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Land Stewardship Project out of Minneapolis. There are many, many other nonprofit farming organizations offering these services and supports to farmers on being able to transition to more biodiverse crops, or to increase the amount of land dedicated to conservation, or to transition to organic farm practices. So that is a very positive sign, though it is small in comparison to the conglomerates we see out on our fields.
Who Will Own the Land?
BPGL: I keep hearing that it’s almost impossible for the family farm to stay alive. Once the older farmers retire or die, and their kids have the opportunity to take over, so often they either don’t want to or they can’t afford to; they have to sell off the property. Do you see any changes in policy that would help preserve the small family farm?
TAGTOW: Again, there is some advocacy work being done by certain groups on these issues, but the scary reality is, because of the average age of the farmer owners here in Iowa, we are going to see some of the largest land transfers in the next 20 to 25 years. And because of land prices, it’s not going to be family members who can afford to keep that land. There is a concern that land in Iowa will no longer be owned by individuals and families, but more land will be owned by corporations or even by other countries, because other countries are land-grabbing as well. For example, China and India are going to have some of the largest anticipated growth in population in the next 40 years, and they need to secure land to grow their own food.
BPGL: Is it likely then, if China and India grab up a lot of land in Iowa, that the food produced here will be shipped there and won’t support the people here in Iowa?
TAGTOW: Yes, but it is not much different than what’s happening now. With a lot of the farming that happens here, the products get exported out of Iowa. We don’t really garner the true economic benefit of what we grow here. Other companies that are outside of the state get the economic gain from our land.
We know that we’re going to have some of the largest land transfers here in Iowa. Somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of the land owned in Iowa is owned by women. It’s starting to happen in Wisconsin — and a little bit in Iowa through Women, Food, and Agriculture Network — women are getting together. They’re collaborating on some of their decisions. They’re getting educated as to what their options are for transferring that land in the near future. Again, it’s happening on such a small scale. There isn’t any large, concerted effort into assuring that the land in Iowa is still here to benefit Iowans.
BPGL: And if there’s no soil left, it will be a moot question, anyway.
Eaters Don’t Know What’s in Our Food
BPGL: Another issue that many people are concerned about is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. What is your opinion about the use of GMO seeds and the health effects of the foods grown from them?
TAGTOW: The fact that here in Iowa we have so much of our land dedicated to two crops, of which a very large percentage are genetically modified, does deeply concern me. Agribusiness has moved these crops so swiftly onto land and into the backyards of farmers that we haven’t had a chance to ask those critical questions about what it means — now or for the future. The mono-cropping culture that exists here has led to environmental degradation — with all crops, whether they’re GMO or not.
From a health side, there is emerging evidence linking the potential ill health effects of genetically modified food both in animals and in humans. I am definitely an advocate of labeling GMO food. I don’t think it’s going to happen in the near future, but again it comes back to the transparency issue. Eaters don’t know what’s in their food — and frankly, biotechnology is a complex issue.
I also take the position that humans weren’t biologically designed to consume a great amount of genetically modified foods. And now we’ve flooded the food supply with high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oil, two main ingredients derived from GMO crops that are in a lot of processed, packaged foods — and do not contribute to a healthy diet. As a result of having very cheap raw materials, there are more and more ingredients that are derived from GMO corn and soybeans. I am one to question the appropriateness of flooding a human (and animal) food supply with crops that were not designed to promote health, but instead are designed to resist herbicides and pesticides.
It all comes back to what I said earlier: Healthy soil grows healthy foods, and healthy food nourishes healthy people, and we know that healthy people form healthy communities. That’s my way of connecting the health of our environment to the health of our food supply to the health of our communities.
Two Minutes with the President
BPGL: What would you say if you had two minutes with President Obama?
TAGTOW: The first thing that I would say is that the future health of this country is greatly dependent upon the health of children of today, and if we don’t change the way we feed children, the society within the United States is going to decline dramatically. I’d share the quote from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.” My first recommendation to the President is that we need to assure that all kids are fed fresh foods that promote health, and the best way of doing that is to connect schools with farms that grow fresh fruits and vegetables.
Part 2: Soil Is a Finite Resource – Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone for Good (Top of Page)
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
(Top of Page)