By Dr. Bjorn Mercer | 11/05/2021
When most people think of soil, they just think of dirt and don’t realize that improving soil health could help offset factors that cause climate change. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU STEM professor Dr. Danny Welsch about the documentary “Kiss the Ground” that focuses on ways to improve soil health. Learn how changes to commercial agriculture practices like no-till farming and regenerative agriculture practices could turn farms from carbon sources into carbon sinks, which would naturally enrich the soil and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Also learn the challenges behind making such changes like reducing federal government subsidies to farmers, and educating the public in order to increase market demand for food grown via regenerative farming practices.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Dr. Danny Welsch, Associate Dean in the School of STEM. Our conversation is about soil health. Welcome, Danny.
Dr. Danny Welsch: Thanks, Bjorn. I’m glad to be here.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. We’ve had you on the podcasts many times and hope to have you on many, many more. What we’re talking about today is really about the Netflix documentary, I should say that it was aired on Netflix, “Kiss the Ground.” The film, “Kiss the Ground,” discusses a critical connection between soils and the atmosphere, in relation to global warming. Normally, we hear that the solution to global warming is reduction of fossil fuels, but not anything having to do with soil. To start off, what is soil? Most people think that it’s dirt. But from a scientific perspective, what is it?
Dr. Danny Welsch: Well, soil is actually something that’s pretty fascinating because almost everyone has had exposure to it, but very few people actually understand what it is, or the role that it plays in global carbon cycles. Scientifically, soil is made up of three main components.
You have mineral matter, which is tiny bits of rock, you have organic material, which is the most important thing that we’re going to be talking about today. And you also have pores or void spaces, and those pores are filled with gases, they’re filled with water, and they’re also filled with microbes, little tiny living things which can also be considered part of that organic pool that exists in soils. That is what soil is from a scientific perspective. Three main components, organic material, mineral matter, and those pores and the stuff that is inside of them.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That is a great definition, and honestly, I did not know that, of course. Is there a difference between soil and then dirt?
Dr. Danny Welsch: Actually, they’re kind of the same thing. It depends on your perspective. When I was in school, I had a soil science professor who would say soil is what you grow your corn in, dirt is what’s under your fingernails.
Dirt is a slang term for soil, and you’ll never hear a scientist or an agronomist or a pedologist or soil scientist describe soil as dirt because dirt has a negative connotation and soil is something that is completely fascinating from a scientific perspective.
One of the reasons that I think it’s so fascinating is that in order to understand soil, you really need to understand biology and chemistry and physics and ecology and how all these things work together.
Because if you just look at the way a plant grows in soil, the plant is the biological part, but that plant has to get its water from the soil. There’s actually a tremendous amount of physics associated with that. I actually took a whole course called Soil Physics, which most people probably don’t even realize exists, but is one of the most fascinating courses that I ever took.
Soils are fascinating because they really tie together a lot of different branches of science, and I think it’s pretty interesting to think about soils almost from an atmospheric science perspective, which is what this documentary does. It really works to try and link what we’re doing with the way we manage soils on the ground with what’s happening in the atmosphere from a global climate change perspective.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That is excellent. I have never heard of the physics of, did you say soil?
Dr. Danny Welsch: Soil physics, yeah.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Soil physics. That’s great. A side question is, how is the dirt in Arizona different than the dirt in Maryland? I’m assuming in Maryland, it’s more easily able to be soil and things are able to be grown in it, versus in Arizona, one of the hottest deserts in North America. It takes a great deal to make that dirt into soil. Is that a simple way to look at it or?
Dr. Danny Welsch: I would actually call what you have on the ground in Arizona soil. It’s going to be very different soil, and that is primarily the result of the soil-forming factors. There was this famous soil scientist named Jenny, and he postulated these five soil-forming factors and climate is a big factor that determines the type of soil that you have.
Your climate is very different from the climate that we have here in Maryland. It’s a lot hotter and it’s a lot drier in Arizona. Therefore, you would expect that the soils would have evolved through time to reflect that.
They’re probably going to be reflective of the different types of rocks that you have underneath of the soil because the mineral components of the soil are really just a reflection of the geology that’s there. For example, the soils that we have here where I live are very sandy because our rocks are primarily sandstone. But if you have soils that have a lot of limestone or are very basic, then that would be reflective of an underlying geology associated with limestone.
I think soil, in an undisturbed format, is soil everywhere. But you can have incredibly different soil types. That’s the other thing that’s fascinating about soils, is that it varies so widely. That’s reflected in how the soils are managed, and it’s also reflected in what those soils can grow.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That totally makes sense, because here in Arizona, obviously, we grow different things than in Maryland. Just as an example, you can stick a Moringa in the ground, and it just shoots up just so well. Moringa is one of those trees from Africa that people are viewing as a future superfood.
Dr. Danny Welsch: Yeah, that’s pretty fascinating. I would also expect that if you went into the forest here, because it is so humid in the summer and through the winter, and we have a lot more vegetation growing on the surface, you would have a much higher organic matter content.
If you were to take the soil and somehow separate out the organic matter, and the organic matter in soils are bits of leaves and the detritus that breaks down from plants and animals that die in the soil, the dead fine roots from plants. The soils that we have here in the East would have a much higher organic matter content than what you would have there in the desert southwest, primarily as a reflection of the limited amount of vegetation that you actually have on the surface there.
But if you had a roadrunner or an armadillo, or whatever kind of critters you have running around there, that dies on the soil surface and that material breaks down into the soil, you can actually have really high localized organic matter. You don’t have the same types of forests that we have here, which are able to contribute a lot of organic matter on an annual basis into the soil.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That totally makes sense. That leads us to the next question is, what is the connection between soils and the atmosphere?
Dr. Danny Welsch: That is a fascinating story, and it’s not one that a lot of people were aware of. But it’s something that is really important and was the main theme of this film, “Kiss the Ground.” If we think about where carbon is stored on the Earth, the vast majority of it is actually stored in the oceans, both in the water and in the sediments in the bottom of the ocean.
Then there’s a lot of it that is stored as fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas, that are still buried, that we’re rapidly digging up and burning. Then we have a lot that’s stored in the biology, the living matter on the surface of the Earth. But we have a tremendous amount that’s actually stored in the soils.
If we looked at some numbers associated with this, you always hear about the carbon in the atmosphere. Well, there’s about 760 petagrams of carbon in the atmosphere. A petagram is a ridiculously large number. It is one billion metric tons. There are 760 petagrams of carbon in the atmosphere, and that’s the one that we hear about all the time for contributing to global warming. But if we look at what is available in the soils, it’s almost three times that. If we think about all the soil that we have on the Earth and all the carbon that’s stored there, you can understand that there is a connection because the soil carbon is three times greater than the atmospheric carbon.
A lot of that soil is in an agricultural land use, and currently, a lot of the land use associated with agriculture is really good at releasing carbon from the soil where it goes back into the atmosphere. Effectively what we’re doing is we’re taking carbon from the soil and we’re putting it into the atmosphere.
What this film postulates is that it’s actually possible to do the opposite, to use the soils as a way to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. What that would do would potentially have an impact on global temperatures. We could possibly lower global temperatures by managing soils so that they pull the carbon from the atmosphere and act as a sink, as opposed to a source of carbon to the atmosphere. That’s really the link that this movie is talking about. I think there’s a lot to be thought about there.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m really glad you explain carbon sequestration because I didn’t know what that was. But explaining it totally makes sense. Passively, people think about farming and animal farming and everything like that, but they don’t actually realize just how industrial farming relates to global climate. The next question is, how have our industrial farming practices contributed to global warming?
Dr. Danny Welsch: Yeah. That’s a great question. If we think about what we optimize for when farming is done on an industrial scale, we’re optimizing for yield. Yield is basically how many tons per acre can we get? How many tons of soybeans or corn or barley or whatever it is that we’re growing? How can we get the most from that piece of land?
But that often comes at the expense of other things that you might want to consider, like the health of the soil. The soil is essentially the tool that we use to grow anything. It’s something that blows me away. But if you think about anything on the Earth, it either has to be grown or mined. Those are the only two ways we get anything. A lot of it is grown, and the tool that we use to grow anything is the soil.
Now, imagine if you used that tool over and over and over again but you didn’t do anything to fix it or replenish it. Imagine a kitchen knife. If you use the kitchen knife for 30 years without ever sharpening it, it wouldn’t be as good at cutting things.
That is what’s happening with industrial farming. But we’re able to make up for that through chemistry. We’re able to add things to the soil to supplement the fact that the soil itself, the tool that we used to grow things, has become weaker or less sharp or, in the agronomy perspective, less able to grow stuff, there’s just fewer nutrients in that soil.
But we can overcome that by adding chemical fertilizers. We can overcome that by adding pesticides. But what that does is it creates a soil situation that continually needs even more of those chemical additions. Now, those chemical additions have other bad side effects. They kill the microbial population that exists in those soils, and I mentioned the microbes earlier is something that lives in the pores.
If you picked up a handful of soil, there’s going to be billions of microbes in that handful of soil, and those microbes do a tremendous variety of tasks. They break down organic matter, they help make nitrogen in a form that’s available to plants, they contribute carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere through respiration, just like you and I do. These microbes are really important to soil health, but the chemical pesticides that are applied to agricultural fields actually kill those microbes. We’re really working to weaken the soil ecosystem in a big way.
The other thing that happens through industrial farming is tillage. The soils are plowed, mixed, chopped up every year. What that does is releases a tremendous amount of carbon back to the atmosphere in a really short period of time.
If you look at a model, or even measured data from satellites of global carbon, you’ll see this big flush come out from the Northern Hemisphere in April when the soils are tiled. What’s happening is you’re taking carbon that’s stored in the soils, and when you till the soil, you’re either disturbing those microbial populations, you’re killing plants and animals, or you’re releasing carbon that has been in the soil that’s been able to build up.
That goes back to the atmosphere. You get this big flush of carbon that comes out of the soil in the spring when the soils are tilled. It’s possible to grow almost anything without tilling the soils. But because we manage primarily for yield, and tilling the soils is one of the ways to get the most yield, by that I mean the most efficient farming practices when yield is what you’re optimizing for, we still till and that is something that releases carbon, as opposed to allowing the soils to have a healthy ecosystem and pull carbon from the atmosphere.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: One of the things that really stood out when I watched “Kiss the Ground” was just the industrial farming and how so many decisions made seem to be short term, like we’re doing this to have greater yield. Then years go by and decades go by, and then it seems like the soil that is there, like you said, it’s really requiring and requiring more and more and more chemicals, when in reality if they just use the natural soil and use no-till, that could produce a much better result. Maybe not as much, but definitely long term.
What are some of the changes to industrial farming can be made to solve this problem? Again, as a non-farmer and as a non-scientist, it just seems like all these decisions are being made, and this is the skeptic in me, kind of in the corporate boardroom where we’re doing this to have these high yields to make as much food as we can, and the soil will be okay, and if not, we’ll just add some more chemicals to it.
Dr. Danny Welsch: Yeah. That’s been the overriding philosophy, is we’ll use the soils and then we’ll add chemicals when the soils don’t do what we want them to do anymore. The main reason that that philosophy exists is because you can still make a lot of money while doing that.
Given the focus is yield, and the yield determines how much you make as a farmer, like you get a certain amount of money per every ton or bushel depending on the commodity, you’re going to optimize for the greatest amount of money and you’re going to optimize for the greatest yield. Everything comes back to capitalism. Until there’s a demand for products that are grown with an emphasis on soil health, it’s very unlikely that we’re going to see any change.
The other big factor is federal subsidies. Farmers receive subsidies in order to make money off of crops that are grown in an inefficient way. If those subsidies would end, there may be an incentive for farmers to grow crops in a more efficient way where they didn’t have to add as much chemical additives. Chemical fertilizer’s ridiculously expensive. It’s really, really expensive because the process that goes into producing it takes a tremendous amount of energy.
But with federal subsidies, it’s still able to be done in a relatively cheap way. I think market demand from consumers, much like the organic industry, has taken off in the last couple of years, primarily due to market demand.
Growing products in an organic way is less efficient, more expensive, but there’s a market demand for it. I think maybe what we need is a label, something akin to “grown organic,” something like grown in a soil friendly way or something like that, soil friendly.
The question might come up, well, what about organic? Does organic support the soil? Not necessarily. It does in a lot of ways, but not to the extent that it could from a soil-atmosphere linkage perspective. An organically grown crop is primarily one that has grown without chemical additives, without chemical fertilizer, and without pesticides. Doesn’t necessarily mean that that field wasn’t tilled. Tillage is something that really contributes greatly to this pool of soil carbon ending up in the pool of atmospheric carbon.
There may be a way to brand crops that are grown in a soil-friendly fashion that could turn market demand into a tool that can be used to increase this type of agriculture. The type of agriculture is called regenerative agriculture, because essentially what we’re doing is we’re trying to fix soils that have been depleted for a long time, and almost any agricultural soil that’s been in commercial agriculture for more than a couple of years is going to have a measurable level of depletion. A decrease in organic matter, a decrease in nutrient capacity. And regenerative agriculture is a way to continue to grow things, but to add organic material and increase the soil health, as opposed to pushing it in the opposite direction.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So many of our food choices are made because of the bottom line. It’s easy to figure out how we got there, because politics is always short term. Politics is always about can I get elected again? Soil health and food stability should be always a long term.
Do you think there’s anything the government can do to help move this along without it being just a consumer demand? I think, obviously, consumer demands can help. But the government, if they choose to, could also speed up the process.
Dr. Danny Welsch: Yeah, I really think they could. If you think about what the government incentivizes right now, it primarily incentivizes growing crops to feed animals. And it incentivizes growing those crops in the most efficient way possible, and that usually means with a lot of chemical additives. They incentivize that by paying farmers, or at least guaranteeing them a price per yield for their crop. It’s pure economics. I’m not an economist, but you can incentivize almost anything with an economic reward.
There has to be a political decision to incentivize soil health and rejuvenative agriculture with the same tools that we use currently to incentivize growing a lot of food in a really efficient, but, unfortunately, detrimental way.
I’m not entirely sure how that changes, again, without going back to market forces because politics is a reflection of the will of the people, and the people elect the people that make those political decisions. Until we change what we want out of our food system, on a large scale, I’m not entirely sure that there’s going to be any widespread change, which is a little bit disappointing. But it’s reflected even in grocery store commercials. If you think about how grocery stores advertise their food, no grocery store really says, “We have the best food.” What grocery stores say is, “We have the cheapest food,” which is a reflection of the consumer demand.
People don’t really care about where their food comes from or how quality that food is. What they care about is that it is cheap. The cheapest food is unfortunately almost always going to be grown with government incentives and with a lot of commercial additives. That is where we’re going to land for a little while.
Until we actually start to see things happen from a global perspective and are able to demonstrate that we can still grow a lot of food in a really soil healthy way, and that it has the positive impact of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and might lower the temperature, it’s a difficult row to hoe, to use a bad agricultural analogy. It’s going to be a struggle. But I think that it is possible. I think that there are some small pilot studies that have shown that you can grow stuff this way.
Still have really high yields, it costs less, which means greater profits to the farmer, but it is a paradigm shift. It’s going to be like pulling teeth for a little while. But I think it’s possible, and I think it’s something that we really need to do just based on the fact that, honestly, it’s one of the easiest things that we can do to pull carbon from the atmosphere.
If you think about the other proposals to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, they’re really complex. They revolve around the term geoengineering, where we want to pump carbon out of the atmosphere and insert it into the deep oceans or insert it into old oil wells deep in the earth, things like that. Those are really difficult from an engineering perspective, and they’re also really expensive.
But just changing the way we farm is actually something that anyone could do. You could go out and you could change the way you manage the garden in your backyard, and that can change your garden from a source of carbon into a sink of carbon, and that’s really what we want. We want there to be additional large sinks of carbon.
From a scientific perspective, a sink of carbon is something that absorbs carbon, and a source is something that gives it off. Right now, commercial agriculture, and almost all agriculture, is a source of carbon, and we want it to be a sink. It’s possible, but it’s going to be different.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: After watching “Kiss the Ground,” it’s not that I was depressed per se, but just more of amazed at how many years have passed where not that bad practices were being used to grow our crops, but again, just that how capitalism and consumer demand, like you said, we create the cheapest products out there.
It’s really amazing to think that so many little things can happen, but it does require people to change, which of course is one of the hardest things out there.
We left off with you talking about a carbon sink in the backyard and how soil health can be changed, versus using chemicals and pesticides. Another really important aspect of “Kiss the Ground” were animals. How can animals come into the equation, like livestock, cows, pigs, and the industrial farming of those creatures?
Dr. Danny Welsch: If you think about what happens when we grow things on the soil, you’re essentially converting carbon that is in the atmosphere or in the soil into a plant. And then you harvest that plant and you take it away. What would happen in nature is that plant, or some part of it, would fall off or die, and that material, that carbon, would be incorporated back into the soil.
In essence, what’s happening through agriculture is we’re constantly taking carbon out of the soil and not putting it back, which means that the net amount of carbon available in the soil is gradually decreasing. That is problematic because a lot of the nutrients that the plants need are tied up with that soil carbon. But we’re able to overcome that by adding chemical fertilizer to the soils, but that still doesn’t increase the amount of carbon.
One of the things that animals can do is add carbon to soils. Compost is a great way to do that if you intercrop your soils with animal grazing. It’s a cornfield for a couple years, and then it’s an animal paddock for a couple of years. The animals are going to poop out a whole lot of carbon and that carbon is going to end up back in the soil.
By incorporating animals into your operation, you have a large source of carbon, which you can then put back on your soils. As I mentioned before, that carbon is really important because most of the nutrients that are tied up with that carbon are the nutrients that plants need.
By adding animals back into your operation and by adding their waste into the soil, you really move away from the need to spread chemical fertilizers and pesticides. One of the reasons that pesticides have to be applied is because we throw the system out of balance. There’s any number of ways to throw the system out of balance, but certainly decreasing the amount of carbon in the soil is one way.
Tilling is another way. When you disturb the soils, you create an optimal condition for suboptimal species, and when those suboptimal species come in, farmers refer to them as pests and they apply pesticides to get rid of those pests. If you can manage the soil so that it is healthier, so that it is in balance, the opportunity for those pests is greatly decreased and the need for pesticides is greatly reduced.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It sounds simple. What’s standing in the way? Sounds like a simple question, but for so many years, decades, a lot has not changed. What is it? Is it capitalism, or is it market forces, or is it a combination of everything?
Dr. Danny Welsch: I think it’s a combination of a lot of different things. We’ve done agriculture the same way for a really long time. Until we develop the momentum to change the way we’ve always done it, it’s going to not really change. If you think about what it takes to steer an aircraft carrier. They’re big, they’re huge, and it takes them a lot of space and a full day to turn around. It takes them a couple miles to stop.
These things have a lot of momentum, and our agricultural system is a good example of that. Our agricultural system has deep roots in tradition and those traditions are tilling the land and federal subsidies.
Those are two of the big things that would have to change in order for this to happen. The other thing that I think would have to change is yields. We require a lot of food. We grow a lot of food to feed animals, and we grow a lot of crops to feed us.
There’s still a big question as to whether or not we could grow enough food with a lot of agricultural land in a regenerative agricultural land use. That might be one of the big factors, is simply our population. Can we grow enough food for the population without having to rely as much on chemical fertilizers? I think the answer to that question has not yet been established. But population is often the root to a lot of environmental problems.
We got into the global climate change problem because we burn a lot of fossil fuels to support the population. We burned a lot of fossil fuels to make chemical fertilizers which we need to spread on the fields to support our ever-expanding global population.
Anything that we do to decrease the efficiency of agricultural systems may have an impact on our ability to feed everyone, which is certainly something that no one wants. That’s one of the things standing in the way, is just uncertainty about how much food we would be able to produce. And whether or not the producers, in this case the farmers, will be able to make as much money as they are now. Change is always scary, and this is a really big change, given how long we’ve been growing things the same way, traditional agriculture.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Those are all really good reasons why. The funny thing about change is that you just have to change, which just sounds so silly, but it’s 100% true. Even when it comes to no till, I’m not a scientist, I’m not a farmer, but I just assumed that you have to till everything. Now, why? I don’t know. Something about the cultural heritage which I inherited about farming and soil that, oh, you till. Then my wife educated me on, “No, no, no, no. No till. We leave those in there, and then that adds to the soil health and it makes it healthier.”
You talked about population. It’s the one thing that really stood out about this one, and really other documentaries that I’ve watched, is people eating meat. If people just ate less meat that would greatly impact the number of animals that need to be raised, and of course, the number of animals that needed to be killed. All the food and the water and, just like you said, the carbon that is associated in that. But is that something that could help out with, and I’m going to be dramatic here, global warming?
Dr. Danny Welsch: Yeah, absolutely, from a couple of different perspectives, both from an agricultural perspective in what is grown in the fields, and a sort of global gas exchange perspective. I’ll talk about the agricultural one first.
The vast majority of what we grow in fields is grown to feed animals that will then be eaten by us. If we think about corn, the vast majority of corn that we grow is not eaten by us directly. It’s eaten by cows, that are then later slaughtered, and we eat the meat. That is an incredibly inefficient process. It’s really, really inefficient. If you look at a per calorie basis, the amount of energy inputs to grow plants is orders of magnitude less than the amount of energy inputs to grow cattle, because cattle is higher up on the food chain. Every time you go higher up on the food chain, you jump up at least one order of magnitude in energy inputs, and cattle are pretty far up there.
One of the things that can happen is individuals can make a choice to eat less meat, or you can make a choice to eat meat that was not grown in feedlots where the cattle is primarily fed corn that was grown in a commercial agricultural situation.
A much better choice for eating cattle is free-range cattle, cattle that has actually been out in the field and spent almost its entire life in a field, able to contribute carbon directly back into the soil, and was eating grass that grew naturally. That is usually a much better choice for most people.
An even better choice than that, from a global climate perspective, it’s just eating less meat. The less consumer demand there is for meat, the less food will need to be grown for that meat for those animals, and the less percentage of soils globally will be in agriculture in a way that contributes carbon into the atmosphere. That’s one way, is just by reducing the demand for meat.
Another way would be by increasing demand for crops that are grown in a healthy soil way. I don’t really think that exists yet, but I would expect that that’s something that we will be seeing probably within the next decade, is some sort of marketing similar to what the organic industry did. I think there’ll be a lot of products that you’ll see that are claimed to be grown in a soil-friendly way. I’m not sure what the marketing speak will be for that, but I’m sure it’ll be better than what I just came up with.
The third is simply by growing a lot of food at home. There’s nothing to prevent people from growing their own food. When you grow your own food, that reduces your dependency on commercial agriculture, and anything that reduces that is going to improve the atmospheric situation that we have right now. The less food that needs to be grown commercially is less carbon that’s going to go off into the atmosphere.
If you look at New England, which is a really interesting example. Around the turn of the century, New England was primarily agriculture. Just fields everywhere. But New England is not a great place to grow anything, really. Around the ’40s and ’50s, those farms started to be abandoned, and that land reverted back to forests.
If you look at the soils in those forests now, you can definitely still tell that that was an agricultural system because you can see, about 18 inches down in a soil profile in the New England forest, what’s called a plow layer or an AP layer. It’ll actually show you that that field had been plowed because it’s disturbed about 18 inches down.
But those soils are now rich with organic matter, they have a healthy soil ecosystem in place, and they are forested. New England is now primarily forest, and it used to be agriculture. What that tells us is that when soils are no longer used for agriculture, as long as they’re able to, we haven’t degraded them too much, they will revert to a natural ecosystem, whatever that might be for that area.
Beyond where you are, if they stopped irrigating, it would resort back to desert, which most people would say doesn’t sound very productive. But a desert ecosystem is in balance, and it’s going to pull carbon from the atmosphere.
Where I am, if a field is abandoned, it’s going to convert back to forest, and the forest is going to pull a tremendous amount of carbon from the atmosphere. It’s going to be stored both in the soils, but it’s also going to be stored in the trees.
That opportunity to convert fields back to a natural system, which will be a carbon sink as opposed to a carbon source, exists anytime we need to grow less food commercially. If we can grow food in our backyards in a carbon friendly way without a lot of chemical inputs, which is actually really easy to do on a small scale in your own backyard.
In my yard, we have a bunch of maple trees that surround my yard and they dump a bunch of leaves into my yard every fall. We compost all those leaves as well as all of our kitchen scraps, and then in the Spring, in fact, I was going to do it this weekend, but it’s supposed to snow, we work all that back into the garden and that adds organic material back in to replace the organic material that came out when we harvested the crops in the fall. That’s a really small plot, and it’s really easy to do on an individual homeowner scale. The more of that we have, the less need for large-scale commercial agriculture that acts as a source of carbon to the atmosphere.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It makes me think of my wife is a backyard gardener and I, of course, support her. Over the years, it’s really made me realize what soil health is and how easy it is to grow things in your backyard. In Arizona, again, there’s very specific types of plants you can grow, but zucchini are extremely easy. Tomatoes are very easy and leafy greens. Swiss chard grows like nothing here and it just grows huge and absolutely great. We don’t have to buy leafy greens for five months out of the year, six months out of the year. It really makes me think in the desert, if you would have a Moringa farm or if you had a paddle cactus farm, you literally would barely need to water these things and they would grow.
As Americans, we don’t typically eat paddle cactus, but we can. It’s just something that we could get used to. Moringa, you can go to your local Costco and buy some Moringa powder and it’s the next superfood. Or you can just plant one in your backyard, and then you can harvest the leaves and the flowers yourself and then cut out the need for that.
I’m just always amazed at how many things we can do ourselves to really do that. Again, meat consumption is one of them. I’m not taking a stance of radical vegan warrior here at all, but just reducing your consumption of meat. Where if we reduced our consumption to how the Japanese, which is about, they eat about a third of the meat that the average American does. Just think of how that would help.
Now, obviously, companies and industries would have to adjust. But as with anything, companies and industries have to adjust all the time. And I would say the government should stop doing so many subsidies for farming, especially when such a large portion of the government doesn’t believe in regulating industries and giving anybody a leg up and believing in free-market capitalism. If you believe in free market capitalism, it’s hard to imagine that you’re saying, “Oh, but farm subsidies are okay.” There’s a disconnect here.
Now, as a side question, because so few people these days are active in farming, and if you look 100 years ago, half the country was still in agriculture. If you go back, it’ll be 60%, 70%, 80%, 90% of the people were in agriculture, but while in today, it’s under 5%.
Now, I can only imagine it’s going to get smaller. I could see a day when the government has to take over farming. Is that a time in which they could implement good or better soil health policies? Now, one of the things we have been saying is capitalism this, capitalism that, and it’s not to downplay capitalism because in any socialist or authoritarian, more importantly, state, if they have bad agriculture policies, they’re going to have bad soil health.
Dr. Danny Welsch: Yeah. I think there is a tremendous opportunity for that. If you look at some of the things that the government has been able to do. Individuals will almost always optimize for economics, for finance. They’re going to take the cheapest option with the greatest reward because money is what’s most important to most people because they have to feed their families, and that makes complete sense. But governments are able to optimize for different things.
As an example, in the small town that I live in, our local police department, which is of course part of the government, has just bought a fleet of electric police cars. Not something most people would do, but because the government is able to optimize for a different set of goals than just what is the cheapest police car I can buy. They tend to have the ability to do that sort of thing.
One example is when government employees fly, they’re often required to pay for carbon offsets. Not something that the ordinary individual would do, because it’s more expensive. But the government has an interest in offsetting its carbon footprint, and the resources are available because of the size of the government to do that.
That’s an example where the government is using its power, its size, its resources to optimize for a different goal besides the cheapest solution. I think if the government had a stronger hand in agriculture, had a way to steer agriculture in a different direction, that would probably be a good thing.
Now, a lot of people would say, “Well, that’s a radical expansion of government,” and it probably would be. But I would argue that maintaining our atmosphere while at the same time maintaining our food supply would actually be a pretty good role for government.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I really liked that. As a lowercase libertarian, I describe myself as, you try to keep the government out of as many decisions and policies as possible, except for when the private sector or companies consistently only strive for profit, and that is a natural way. If a company is listed on the stock market, they will, of course, that is part of their policy and that’s what they drive for, is profit.
It’s very similar to healthcare where there’s such obsession with cutting cost, cutting cost, cutting costs. But there’s this huge middle person called the insurance companies that do nothing besides create cost in between the consumer and getting good health. Again, the reason I bring up farmers and the government is that just the number of people who do farm has been going down to where there potentially will be a crisis where there’s just not enough people.
The government in the US is forced to do something, and that might be perceived as a government oversight. But it also to me would be perceived as something that government is required to do because we can’t force people to do things. We can’t put them in jobs that they don’t want to do. It’s complicated, and it’ll be interesting to see how the next few years ago. My last question for you, Danny, and it’s a tough one. Is the world going to end in 10 years?
Dr. Danny Welsch: No, I don’t think it’s going to end in 10 years. I think we have a couple beyond that.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I only say that because of the very famous and passionate Swedish environmental advocate, Greta Thunberg. Again, being young and passionate, I understand and having environmental passion is, my heart goes out to it. But I also find that if you use the messaging of the world will essentially end in 10 years, that’s also setting yourself up for years to come and go, and then for people not to listen to you.
What should the messaging be behind all this? Because as long as I’ve been alive, there’s been an Earth Day and there’s been, we have to do all these things. As long as I’ve been alive, actually, things have only gotten worse, even with Earth Day and all these different movements.
Dr. Danny Welsch: Yeah. That’s an interesting question. One of the reasons that climate is such a challenge to address is because it’s such a large problem in such a long timescale. If you put someone next to a volcano and say, “This volcano is going to erupt tomorrow,” they’re probably going to move. But if you put someone next to a volcano and say, “Well, this volcano erupted 40,000 years ago, there’s a chance that it could happen again,” they’re not going to move. And that’s actually a real example because there’s a tremendous number of people that are living in the shadow of active volcanoes which could erupt at any moment. But that threat of risk, their individual assessment of risk is low because the problem is large and the timescales are grand, and that is something that actually makes it really difficult to fix this problem.
I think the only real way that we can get any traction on solving a problem like this is to put it in terms that people can understand. Put it in terms of things that are happening right now. We can look at the annual temperatures, we can look at the temperature of the oceans, we can look at the frequency of storms, and talk about things from that perspective, as opposed to, well, 50 years from now, we might not be able to grow corn in Nebraska because it’ll be too hot. That’s not something that people are really going to be able to wrap their minds around because half the population is going to go, “Well, I’m not going to be alive in 50 years.”
But if you say, “Look at what happened last year with the hurricanes. That is caused by global warming, and global warming is caused by at least partially by the way we grow our food. So maybe we need to change the way we grow our food.” Messaging has a big role here, and I don’t feel like we’ve done a great job in messaging in an appropriate way to see fundamental change.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That is a wonderful way to put it because messaging, unfortunately, is everything. But even something like reducing your meat consumption, it’s completely fine. If you ask your doctor, your doctor will say, “Yes, reduce your meat consumption. It’ll help your cholesterol, it’ll help your fat,” all these positive things.
But then some people are like, “No, I’m not going to do it. I’m going to do what I want to do. It’s my body.” Yes, of course. But like you said, with grocery stores, grocery stores offer the cheapest possible product, and meat is extremely cheap compared to other countries around the world.
If meat was more fairly or truly priced, people would actually then consider, sometimes, unfortunately, forced to find other options, and taking on more vegetarian die. Not becoming a strict vegetarian or a strict vegan, but again just eating more of those options than meat can help not only your own health, because I’m sure we all want to live a long time, but also help the environment. Absolutely wonderful conversation, Danny. Any final words?
Dr. Danny Welsch: No, I really think that this is an interesting avenue to think more about. Regenerative agriculture is not something that I had heard or read a whole lot about prior to watching this documentary, and I hope it’s something that I hear a lot more about because it sounds like almost a win-win if we can convince people to go in for it. You’re able to turn soils into a carbon sink, you’re able to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, that’s a big win for global warming. You’re able to create a healthier ecosystem that’s in greater balance.
That’s a win for using less chemical additives in the form of fertilizers and pesticides, and it creates a greater balance between agricultural systems, human systems, and climate systems, and I think that it’s pretty easy. Honestly, it’s pretty straightforward. You just have to farm in a slightly different way. We’re not drilling holes into the ocean and injecting carbon from the atmosphere. This is not a big engineering challenge. This is a pretty easy thing to do that could potentially have a relatively large impact.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Absolutely wonderful, and I completely agree. Today we’re speaking with Dr. Danny Welsch about soil health, and of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.