Not just dirt

Upon the release of new documentary Symphony of the Soil, Nikki Allen finds out about the role of soil in maintaining a healthy planet

We walk on it. We grow plants and vegetables in it. It gets under our fingernails when we’re gardening. But how often do we really think about soil – and how important it is in addressing some of the most challenging environmental issues of our time?

Symphony of the Soil, the latest film from Deborah Koons Garcia – who also produced and directed The Future of Food in 2004 – asks us to explore this question. And its answer? That restoring the health of soil is the single most important challenge we face on our planet today, she believes.

The film’s basic premise is this: healthy soil creates healthy plants, which creates healthy humans living on a healthy planet. It looks at the “miraculous substance” that is soil – its use and misuse in agriculture and development, and cutting edge scientific research that explores soil’s key role in environmental issues.

“People ask why we should care about soil,” says Deborah. “As climate change and the increase in carbon emissions in the atmosphere cause more and more disasters, carbon sequestration becomes increasingly important. Healthy, living soil enhances the Earth’s natural ability to hold carbon in the soil, thus reducing the emission of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and alleviating global warming.”

Not only this, she explains, but improving soil also has a dramatic impact on water use. “Understanding and respecting the power and potential that soil has to help solve environmental problems is essential. Once people have that understanding and appreciation, they will move towards appropriate action,” she says. “As Dr. Fred Kirschenmann, farmer and philosopher, tells us, restoring the fertility of our soil is the single most important challenge we face today.”

Over the years, though particularly during the ‘green revolution’ – the explosion of new techniques to increase agricultural production in the late 1960s – destructive land use practices have degraded and poisoned our soil, she argues. Now, toxic chemicals and nitrates prevalent in industrial farming today are impacting it further still.

“The film’s aim is to raise consciousness about how we think about and treat soil and to learn to take responsibility for protecting and improving soil for the generations to come,” says Deborah.

But how can we do this? Symphony of the Soil suggests some simple methods for playing our own, individual part in preserving the health of soil.

The all-important first step is testing the soil in your own garden, to find out how to best make it thrive. All you need is your hands, some water and a shovel. When you’ve collected a sample, you can test it at home for composition, water retention, biological health and Ph balance and send it off to a lab to test for chemical properties such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium content. You can find out more about how to do this by visiting the Symphony of the Soil website.

An easy way to improve the health of the soil around you is to divert your organic material into a home composting system. This will solve two problems at once: it lessens the amount you send to the landfill and it will create an organic soil amendment for your garden. There are many ways to home compost, including popular methods such as worm composting and bin composting.

If it’s that easy to contribute to improving the health of the soil on our planet, perhaps Deborah is right and it’s time to get our hands dirty.

Symphony of the Soil is available now for community screenings