Agriculture is the biggest way that humans impact our landscape. Over 35% of the world’s ice-free land is dominated by agriculture. In Australia, that number reaches over 50%, helping to nourish our booming population. From crops to stock, the land provides us with so much. To honour agriculture, ‘Kiss the Ground’ tells a story about the most important, and often overlooked, element in the sector: soil. The 2020 environment documentary largely focuses on the United States, and here we both review the film as well as explore what it means for our Australian soil.
Our definition of soil
Soil is more than just dirt. It’s a complex and dynamic structure made up of water, air, and organic microbes to help grow our nutritious foods. Soil is a valuable carbon-sequestering resource that we need to preserve, as it can easily be damaged by water, wind, or agricultural practices. Techniques of deep tillage, heavy pesticide use, and cleared fields promote soil loss or degradation. On the other hand, there are a number of factors that help to build topsoil. In particular, decaying organic matter, nutrient-rich animal droppings, and cover crops whose roots help to give the soil structure and protect it from being carried away.
Here’s a trailer of the movie:
The Kiss the Ground documentary begins with a powerful introduction showing the current and future impacts of climate change. After rather intense scenes, it quickly moves into a lighter atmosphere: one of hope. With a mix of A-list celebrities and soil science experts to act as narrators, the documentary presents an engaging history of agriculture and the impacts of humans on soil health. By describing the emergence of tillage, pesticides and other agricultural discoveries, the film exposes just how fragile the world’s soils are. Since the Green Revolution began in the 1950s, we have lost ⅓ of the world’s top soil. Even more frightening, experts suggest the remaining topsoil will be gone within 60 years. Gabe Brown, a spokesperson and regenerative ranger in the United States, reframes this as “60 harvests to solve the problem” to bring hope back into the narrative.
The film takes a solutions-orientated perspective to educate the audience on more environmentally-friendly agricultural processes that help maintain soil. These include increasing biodiversity by avoiding monoculture cropping, no-till seeding techniques, responsible animal-integration, large-scale composting and continuous cover cropping. These techniques all aid in improving soil structure, helping the land to retain more water after rainfall events and avoid nutrient-leaching. As a number of experts in the film remind us, “if we look after our soils, our soils will look after us”.
What does this mean for Australian soils?
Kiss the Ground, although an excellent documentary which details the function and importance of soil in agriculture, takes a US-centric approach. Australian soils are different in structure, microbes, and agricultural use as a result of different weathering processes and age. You will likely have noticed the bright red hue of Australian soils if you’ve ever driven across the Simpson Desert or strayed far from a major city. The unique colour is a result of oxidation, or rusting, of iron in the soil over long geological time periods. Our soils have remained untouched by glaciers or soil-making events for millions of years, leaving them to weather and erode slowly. This has left the continent with largely nutrient-poor soils, often covered with scrub and used for cattle or sheep grazing. But this doesn’t mean our soils aren’t important, it means we must care for them even more.
Australia is on the leading edge of the Carbon trading space, rewarding farmers for increasing soil carbon through revegetation, avoiding deforestation, and other carbon-sequestering agricultural practices. In late 2020, Australia’s Clean Energy Regulator updated new soil carbon policies under the Emissions Reduction Fund to improve the Carbon Credits scheme, increase flexibility for participants and decrease measurement costs to increase use. Despite these improvements, the system is still far from perfect. The National Soil Strategy was the first national policy on soil, implemented in May 2021. The policy explains that a changing climate and growing population increases pressure to produce more food and fibre, posing major challenges for the successful management of our fragile soil. The policy prioritises soil health, enabling farmers to increase farm resilience by planning and maintaining environmental plantings to protect soil.
The largest area for improvement in Australia comes from our rivers. Riparian land, the vegetation-rich area that runs along river banks, has huge prospects for capturing carbon. When these landscapes are messy and complex, it not only helps to retain moisture and increase biodiversity, but it promotes the storage of carbon. If these areas are protected from humans and stock, that carbon is used to promote farm health and productivity, instead of being released into the atmosphere. Healthy riparian landscapes can sequester up to ~290 tonnes of carbon per hectare, while the same site in poor health only sequesters ~4 tonnes of carbon per hectare. According to Professor Ian Rurtherford from the University of Melbourne, carbon farming is a “fundamentally good business decision”, giving landholders a resource to diversify income and help the environment all in one. This makes them economically and personally resilient in the face of climate uncertainties.
Riparian land can sequester more carbon when in good health.
Photo credit: Lori Gould, 2019 (left) & Richard Snashall, 2021 (right)
How we protect Australian soils
Rivers of Carbon works closely with landholders to achieve high carbon sequestration results through river landscape protection and restoration. Helping to connect people to place, while mitigating climate change, remains one of the key drivers behind our work. We focus on riparian landscapes because of their potential for productivity and high quality soils. As part of our 11 projects, we have worked with over 190 landholders to successfully restore over 1,100 ha of land and plant over 80,000 trees. In our Source Water Linkages program, RoC projects will help to sequester ~150,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions over the next 25 years. That’s the same as the energy from 15,000 homes, or 30,000 passenger vehicles. That’s a lot of sequestration!
We look forward to continuing to work with landholders to improve Australian soils, as we now know just how important they are.
Our Carbon Science Resources
We are fortunate to have researchers in Australia who are keen to make their science applicable in the ‘real world’ and meaningful to our landholders. Rivers of Carbon is continually embracing new knowledge, whether that be from science or experience, so that we can provide the best advice and gain optimum environmental and social outcomes.