The Answer Lies in the Soil

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Issue 288
January/February 2015
Power to the People

Reviews

The Answer Lies in the Soil
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Cover: Painting by Sara Caracristi www.caracristi.blogspot.co.uk

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Matt Dunwell welcomes a roots-and-all study of a new approach to agriculture. the Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet by Kristin Ohlson. Rodale, 2014. ISBN: 9781609615543

Ask anyone to draw a picture of their favourite tree, and they will inevitably finish at ground level, cutting the tree in half and leaving off the root structure and the underground world it inhabits. Our understanding of agricultural systems suffers the same fate. We are only beginning to stare in awe at the prodigious complexity of the living soil beneath our feet.

In her book The Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson skilfully describes the second half of our tree. She has added to the growing literature that is putting soil at the heart of our most pressing social problems: how to feed ourselves into the future, and how to confront climate change.

At the heart of Ohlson’s book lies a seditious claim – that we can increase production, grow more nutritious food and tackle climate change if we treat our soils as living entities. This is a direct challenge to the orthodoxy of our current approach to agriculture, which has until very recently treated the soil as a dead medium studied through the disciplines of physics and chemistry. In its stead Ohlson traces the journey of practitioners who have discovered a probiotic approach, working with Nature instead of against it, building natural systems through composting and grazing management.

The style of the book is pacey rather than academic. It’s an accessible work, designed to intrigue and entice – no bad thing in the often rather dry world of soil science. Ohlson takes us on a journalistic romp through a series of interviews with some of the leading figures in this new exploration of living soil. We learn about the thorns in Allan Savory’s bare feet, the thunderous piano playing of Peter Donovan and that Abe Collins smells sometimes of milk, sometimes of fish. However, these are the folk who are pushing this new frontier – a point powerfully made by Ohlson. Without corporate dollars, the universities and academics are largely absent, a shocking state of affairs that leads Ohlson to title one of her chapters ‘Why Don’t We Know This Stuff?’

And of course it is contentious. The breathless pace of the book leaves little time to explore the sceptiscm to the more ambitious claims of people like Allan Savory and Elaine Ingham who talk about a return to a world with preindustrial CO2 levels if their strategies are followed. This is a shame, as the substance and the terms of this debate are fascinating, and such claims need interrogating.

Absent, too, from the story is the use of biochar. Another contentious customer, biochar has an important role in the culture of soil life, and I missed this dimension, which has equally colourful characters and ambitions. Overall, though, the book is a useful addition, taking us nimbly through topics such as soil carbon accounting and carbon credits without much pain, and leaving the reader wanting more information about how we, as gardeners, growers, farmers and consumers can better understand the living soil under our feet.

The cover of the book is telling: a full picture of a maple sapling – roots and all!

Matt Dunwell runs Ragmans Lane Farm, and is part of the Agroecological Transitions Working Group for the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

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