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From Soil to Society: A Systems Approach to Change

Publication: Common Dreams

Author: Siena Chrisman

To build a different system—one that values healthy soils, biodiversity, clean water, and human capital overexploitation and profit at all costs—we must invest in the knowledge that supports it.

Soil scientist E. Britt Moore drives home the foundational nature of soil to his undergraduate students with an etymology lesson. Human, he tells them, comes from the Latin humus, or soil. Adam is from the Hebrew adamah, meaning ground. Regardless of whether you believe God creating the first human from clay is mythology, says Moore, “societies before us understood an intimate connection between people and soil.”

In its 400-year history, the United States has largely severed this relationship. From the beginning, the U.S. agricultural economy has been based on exploitation of the land and of people of color, and modern farm practices treat soil as an extractive resource. Centuries of institutionalized discrimination have resulted in soils expertise being seen not as a common heritage for all people but as specialized knowledge belonging to a certain class: landowners, farmers, and researchers—all predominately white. Meanwhile, many communities of color, both urban and rural, live on ground that is contaminated and depleted.

Even those aiming to address these problems by improving soil health follow the same pattern.

“The demographics of the people on the front lines fighting for justice are very different than the demographics of the people researching [regenerative agriculture],” Moore observes.

The big names in regenerative agriculture are white, and the movement has faced criticism for not acknowledging the roots of its knowledge base in Indigenous and Black agricultural practices. At the same time, much racial equity and environmental justice work tends to be far removed from considerations of landscape-scale ecology. Moore is part of a growing movement of scientists, researchers, farmers, and community leaders working to bridge this gap.

Today’s systems of exploiting the soil were developed alongside systems of human exploitation and oppression; to address one, we must address both—and that starts with the soil.

Parallel Histories of Exploitation

The outlines of the development of U.S. agriculture are familiar: white colonial governments took land from Indigenous peoples through massacres, broken treaties, and outright land theft. Backed by international business interests, they built a tremendously profitable economy on the land based on free labor made possible by legal enslavement of kidnapped Africans and their descendants.

Across what is now the Midwestern farm belt, the 1862 Homestead Actpromised parcels of land to white settlers if they farmed it using the production-oriented methods of the day: plowing up the deep prairie and planting shallow-rooted annual crops. While most of the parcels went to speculators and others with capital rather than to working farmers, the land was nonetheless effectively redistributed to white ownership. Meanwhile, the post-Civil War order popularized as “40 acres and a mule,” granting land to formerly enslaved people, was overturned within a year. Subsequent U.S. agriculture policy has played out in similar ways, consistently benefiting white farmers, larger-scale operations, and, ultimately, corporate interests. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has admitted to decades of discrimination against Black farmers and other farmers of color.

On the ground, the 1860s “sod-busting,” as plowing the prairie became known, destroyed millions of acres of deep-rooted tall grasslands and forests. The native prairie was a complex above- and belowground ecosystem, supported by a web of life from microbes to bison and stewarded for millennia by Indigenous communities. As annual grain crops replaced perennial prairie and seasonal plowing replaced the movement of bison grazing tall grass, some of the richest soil in the world was exposed, dried to dust, and blew as far as New York City. In response to the Dust Bowl, New Deal-era farm policy prioritized conservation measures, but priorities changed just a few decades later, and farmers were again encouraged to plant “fencerow to fencerow.”

The legacy of these parallel histories is, at the societal level, an agricultural landscape that is today over 95% white, and where 5% of farms account for 75% of all farm sales. Regardless of actual demographics, rural has become nearly synonymous with white, while urban is too often used as a dog whistle to mean communities of color.

Environmentally, the ongoing focus on producing for maximum yield has been a disastrous legacy. Established corporate supply chains, demand for livestock feed, and government support for corn and soybeans have led these two annual grains to dominate the rural landscape, despite persistent oversupply. The crops are dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides and grown in a way that leaves the ground bare for two-thirds of the year. Livestock, formerly raised alongside field crops, are grown out in large confinement barns. Agricultural chemicals and large concentrations of manure cause persistent challenges with nitrate pollution of waterways and drinking water. Without perennial roots or year-round grass cover, soil becomes dry and unstable, likely to blow away or wash into lakes, streams, and groundwater, harming ecosystems and human health.

The Benefits of Continuous Living Cover

The environmental crises of modern agriculture—catastrophic loss of soil and biodiversity, water pollution, contribution to climate change, and much more—have become so extreme that some are tempted to focus exclusively on that aspect of U.S. agriculture’s exploitative legacy. But others across the Upper Midwest and beyond are finding the importance of addressing agriculture’s harms to society and the earth together, inspired by a systems-based approach centered around continuous living cover (CLC).

CLC is a set of regenerative agriculture practices whose basic tenet is keeping soil covered with living matter and living roots in the ground at all times, making it better able to absorb and retain water, limit runoff, and retain nutrients. CLC practices allow farmers to reduce or eliminate chemical input use, as the increased biodiversity builds soil fertility and natural pest resistance. Diversification of crops and farm products can lead to new marketing opportunities. Ultimately, this can lead to additional community economic benefits with a focus on local and regional supply chains that grow to meet new processing and product development opportunities.

There are many different ways that farmers and landowners can approach CLC to meet their needs and the needs of the land. CLC options include harvested or unharvested winter or year-round cover crops such as camelina winter oilseed, new perennial grain crops like Kernza® perennial grain, agroforestry approaches including orchard trees or windbreaks, and integration of livestock.

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