Promises and discontents

A new documentary focuses on using the soil’s carbon absorbent properties to solve the climate change problem.

Still from the documentary, "Kissing the Ground."

I come from a family that has been farming for generations and is still farming (I have three sheep). In recent years, and according to my mother who keeps a close eye on these things, the yields have been declining. A portion of it may be attributed to climate change, but as tillers, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of our declining yield is due to our farming practices. As a result, I keep my eye out for solutions that we could employ to minimize our damage to the ground.

The documentary film Kiss the Ground seems to point to solutions. It focuses on using the soil’s carbon absorbent properties to solve the climate change problem. More than that, it “offers a way to heal our bodies, bolster our immune systems and heal our planet” according to Rebecca Tickell, who, along with her husband Josh, directed the film. It is narrated by Hollywood actor and environmental activist Woody Harrelson. He founded Voice Yourself, a website that promotes and inspires individual action to create global momentum towards simple organic living and to restore balance and harmony to our planet.

The film puts forward regenerative farming as a solution for climate crises. It begins by highlighting the journey and omnipresence of carbon, and its importance to both the environment and our bodies. It goes on to explore the negative impacts of tilling and industrial pesticides on human health and the environment. Through the juxtaposition of a farm that uses regenerative agriculture, we see the vast difference in yield as a result of each respective method. The film ends on a positive note, showing the results of restorative methods in Loess Plateau in China, previously succumbing to desertification and now a “paradise” that is improving the livelihoods of the community.

What stood out for me was how well the film contextualized the challenges that the planet is facing right now. For example, it shows a carbon map to underscore the effects of farming on carbon levels in the atmosphere at different stages of the farming cycle throughout the year. During March and April in the northern hemisphere, when farmers are tilling, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is extremely high. In June when the crops start to grow, the carbon dioxide in the air decreases significantly as it is absorbed by the growing crops. This demonstrates the directors’ main thesis that the soil releases large amounts of carbon when tilled but can also have the potential to absorb large amounts of carbon, through restorative farming, which is a type of farming that “repairs the damage we’ve done [to the earth] and makes this better.” However, as I watched the film I wondered how have these “civilized” and more “efficient” modern methods of agriculture contributed to our extractive methods of farming and what were we doing before the big machines and pesticides?

What resonated with me was that we are saving not the earth but rather ourselves. The earth will be fine, the earth is self-healing and will heal itself, which could mean ridding itself of humans. By appealing to the human instinct of self-preservation, the documentary invites to the conversation, not just the “tree-huggers” but anyone with a will to live.

The film also highlights the role that colonialism and industrialization have played in stripping the land—such as how the killing of the buffalo led to the starvation of indigenous communities in the US. These are the same practices who caused the Dust Bowl in the 1930s dubbed one of the greatest man-made eco disasters in US history. I couldn’t help but wonder if the people responsible for this ecological disaster should be the same people accountable for “restoring the ground.” Could this be an opportunity to look at how indigenous people in North America and Africa lived on the land for so many years and managed to retain its value and its good properties? Should we look to them for solutions? The film cites money as one of the vital constraints inhibiting the widescale adoption of restorative farming. This, however, begs the question: how did our ancestors preserve the ground with limited resources?

There was, however, one awkward scene that stood out like a sore thumb. In it, the American actress Patricia Arquette is pictured in Haiti and Uganda practicing white-saviorism. On a visit to Haiti, she realizes that the locals don’t have proper sanitation and pilots a compost sanitation project, which is then exported to Uganda. The project teaches people how to have composting toilets, so they can collect and treat their own waste to use as compost. Local communities are, however, reluctant to adopt the method as it involves human poop.

Something else that stood out was lack of BIPOC among those profiled or featured in the film. There are a number of sequences shot on the African continent, where black people are few and far between. If they feature they tend to be in subservient positions and lacking in agency, with the heavy thinking left to the white settlers. Some notable organizations led by people of color who could have made the film richer include: Aranya Agricultural Alternatives in India founded by Padma and Narsanna Koppula; Soils, Food and Healthy Communities in Malawi, a farmer-led organization; and the Traditional Native American Farmers Association in the US.

Given that we live in a capitalist society, I found it quite relevant that there is a business case for the restorative method of farming. Farmers may speak of loving the land like their own offspring, but the reality is for many it has all been corporatized. The moral argument for preserving the earth appears to have had limited success and perhaps now is the time to appeal to the farmers’ bottom line. By making a business case, the methods of restorative farming not only appeal to passionate organic farmers, but to all farmers.

Further Reading

The price of contamination

Legal cases against foreign multinationals in the Central African Copperbelt seek justice for decades of pollution. But activists should also investigate the historical legacies of colonial mining companies.