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It Starts With The Soil

A journey into the heart of regenerative agriculture.   

A still from the film Kiss The Ground (c) Common Ground

Soil. It is probably the most undervalued asset in the world, and yet is the foundation of global GDP. This approximately 1m-thick layer of biogeochemically altered rock and sediment at the Earth’s surface provides essential ecosystem services, including producing 98.8 per cent of our food and hosting about 25 per cent of Earth’s biodiversity. 

And yet, our soil health has, until now, been disregarded, to the point that conventional and industrial agriculture, in pursuit of short-term yields, has stripped the soil of its functions, natural fertility, and biodiversity, crucial for growing nutrient-rich foods.  

The United Nations states that more than 33 per cent of our land is degraded, with over 10 million hectares of soil lost each year, degrading at a pace 10 times faster than the rate of natural repair. It takes more than 200 years to restore just one inch of topsoil. 

In stark contrast, regenerative agriculture avoids harm and actively improves the environments it touches. This approach, encompassing techniques such as crop rotation, cover cropping, reduced tillage, and integrating livestock, helps restore soil health and biodiversity. 

A still from the film Kiss The Ground (c) Common Ground

Regenerative agriculture and how to individually support it, is the subject of Josh Tickell’s trio of films, the multi-award-winning Kiss the Ground, Common Ground (in theatres now) and Groundswell, coming soon.  

“In terms of impact communication, so much of what you see is either dismally depressing, or it is platitudes, like ‘we should recycle’,” says Tickell, who has directed some 20 impact films to date.  

Narrated by Woody Harrelson and featuring celebrities such as Gisele Bündchen, the documentary creates a feel-good arc towards entertainment, with palatable animations, as well as hopeful and actionable messaging, and advice such as how to buy regeneratively farmed produce on its website. It even includes food vouchers.  

Tickell grew up in Louisiana, close to polluting oil refineries. “From an early age I watched a lot of people close to me get sick. That experience put me on track to finding solutions, how do we solve big intractable environmental solutions. I’ve always felt, every problem has a solution.” 

The films, invested in by some of the world’s wealthiest, including billionaire philanthropist John Paul DeJoria, are having a measurable impact. “While there is no cash ROI, we measure intangible impact in the world. For Kiss the Ground we measured acres of land converted to regenerative agriculture. There were about 250,000 acres globally when we began, then three years after the film, we measured 30 million acres,” says Tickell.  

After the release of the second film, Common Ground, the goal is to get that to 100 million acres. Given that after viewing Kiss the Ground, the US Department of Agriculture committed US$20 billion to regenerative agriculture, that goal seems increasingly achievable.  

Research and data from regenerative agriculture show real promise: increases in organic matter lead to better water retention of soil — for every 1 per cent increase in organic matter, the soil can hold approximately an additional 20,000 litres of water per hectare — enhancing resilience against drought and improving crop yields.  

A regenerative farm planted with multiple crops

The Rodale Institute's 30-year Farming Systems Trial found that regenerative practices produce yields up to 40 per cent higher in stressful drought years compared to conventional systems. More carbon is held and stored in soil than in the atmosphere and vegetation on the planet combined. These practices also enhance soils capability as a crucial carbon sink, helping to mitigate the impact of climate change. 

Why does healthier soil lead to more nutritious food? The answer lies in the biology of the soil food web — a complex system involving microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. These organisms break down organic matter in the soil, making nutrients available to plants in forms they can absorb. Healthy, living soils rich in organic matter support diverse microbial life, which in turn supplies plants with the essential nutrients they need to grow and develop nutritional content. 

Transitioning to regenerative agriculture is challenging, primarily due to the significant costs and complexities involved. The initial investment in changing practices can be substantial, often requiring new knowledge, equipment, and materials. Additionally, the transition period can temporarily decrease yields as the ecosystem adjusts to new methods.  

Innovations from companies such as Groundwork Bioag are crucial in this transition, providing mycorrhizal fungi inoculants, and dedicated inputs for farmers to use that help accelerate soil restoration and health, improve plant health, carbon capture, and yield, thereby reducing the barrier and risk for farmers. 

Mycorrhizal fungi inoculants (c) Groundwork Bioag

Critically, studies facilitated by organisations such as the Bionutrient Association and startups such as Edacious have begun to illustrate that regeneratively grown crops can offer higher levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and other nutrients than conventional and organic counterparts. The enhanced nutrient density is largely due to improved soil health, which fosters a richer soil microbiome, critical for nutrient uptake by plants. Edacious is pioneering efforts to reduce the costs of measuring these improvements, enabling the industry to begin sourcing based on nutrient density. Selling food that both feeds and heals us represents the ultimate business model in a health-conscious market. It won’t be long before this will be in the hands of us as citizens. 

The connection between the quality of the produce and our health is undeniable. Foods grown in rich, healthy soils are not just more nutritious, they are packed with the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that our bodies crave. These powerhouse foods boost our immune system, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and can even extend our lifespans. 

Investing in superior farming practices and restoring soils represents a commitment to our health and longevity. It shifts our focus from merely treating symptoms to addressing the root causes of health issues, which ultimately affects both our personal health and global economic sustainability. 

The role of food in shaping our health is paramount. Understanding the critical link between nutrition and health, and supporting regenerative food systems, are essential steps in promoting longevity and vitality. By acknowledging the integral connection between food, health, and the environment, we pave the way for a future defined by enhanced vitality and wellness. Making conscious food choices and backing regenerative farming, supported by the latest innovations and venture capital, are decisive actions we can take to foster a healthier world for ourselves and future generations. 

Antony Yousefian is partner at The First Thirty, a venture capital fund regenerating nature through the soil. A mission to restore the function of more than 30 million hectares, through supporting early-stage technology companies that enable us to understand nature’s value and impact on economic productivity.