Thousands of years of global deforestation and half a century of artificial fertilizers and pesticides have caused topsoil erosion that now threatens life on Earth. 60% of the carbon that was once naturally held in soils is now in the atmosphere due to monocropping and industrial agriculture, which releases carbon into the atmosphere (and depletes nutrients in our food) by destroying root systems, micorrhizal fungi, bacteria and other microscopic life essential to soil health.
The ‘green revolution’ of the 1960’s was, literally, a marketing scheme to sell off the leftover nitrogen from bomb making during WWII. The nitrogen was formulated into anhydrous ammonia (a hugely energy-intensive process in itself) and injected into the soil then disked in to trap it there. It’s ironic to look back and imagine how we drank that Kool Aid, thinking that the residue of war could feed us better than the Earth’s natural processes.
From the soil’s perspective, there is little difference between conventional and organic industrial agriculture. Though organic farmers don’t utilize artificial fertilizers and pesticides, they nonetheless destroy the micronutrients in the soil through fertilization, excessive tilling and monocropping. Scientists estimate we have less than fifty years of arable soil remaining on Earth. Period. Globally. Without healthy soil we are doomed.
Nutrient density is severely compromised when food is grown in depleted soil. Current global epidemics of auto-immune diseases, cancers, mental illness and obesity are all traceable to microbial depletion and/or imbalance. We eat and eat and are not satisfied because our food lacks the nutrients to sustain us. By building soil health we can not only replenish the nutrients that are missing in our food (and in our animals’ food), we can increase soil’s natural capacity to hold water in ways that will protect against droughts and floods, and rebuild biodiversity. Best of all, “…regenerative agriculture could draw down the 50 parts per million of CO2 we need to get back to 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere… With global adoption of conservation agriculture, world cropland could sequester 40 million to 1 billion tons of carbon annually over a period of 50-100 years.”
My friend, Sallie Calhoun, is pioneering a philosophy that evaluates the work on her ranch, as well as her investments and philanthropic gifts through the lens of soil health. She thinks of each project, potential investment or grantee as part of an ecosystem and seeks to build a healthy ‘microbial’ community by calling into service whatever tools she has at hand: land management, money, advice, training, networking – whatever will build the human community along with the micronutrients and photosynthetic capacity of the soil to hold more water, sequester carbon, restore habitats, and grow better food. She calls this the No Regrets Initiative (www.noregretsinitiative.com).
She considers all her investments to be a way of ‘farming microbes’ - for a future food source, for drought protection and water security, for social justice, and for the healthy climate that will necessarily result as we re-learn from Nature how to return to balance. Sallie has taken on the enviable and seemingly impossible task of going ‘all in’ to align with Nature, in what is known as Regenerative Agriculture - and Regenerative Investing in general – whether of land, people, money, donations or how we spend our time.
Sallie is choosing to live in active, collaborative partnership with Nature – with profits going primarily to Nature as well. She says that farmers and ranchers, in particular, are caught in the middle (as in being ground in the crucible of) the cultural changes and pressures arising as our existing linear-extractive meets bio-mimetic ways of living. As Sallie’s brilliant investment adviser, Esther Park, points out, if we make a graph showing economic growth since the notion of profits began, we see the line representing financial gain climbing steadily upward and the line representing natural systems (forests, clean water, healthy soil, etc.) steadily plummeting. Sallie and Esther believe we must rebalance that equation by allowing Nature to recover and choosing to limit or forego profit altogether. Sallie says, “Managing for what’s measurable is not the same as managing for what’s of value.”
These insights ring so deeply true that I find myself rethinking not only my financial life but community in general and the communities I am part of in particular. To see our social ecosystems as ‘microbial’ or ‘fungal’ communities goes beyond amorphous new-age notions of the energetic effects of our thoughts, intentions and communication to redefine the function of each member or group of members in microbial terms, to re-visualize the patterns we make in our interactions and reconsider our roles to bring greater clarity and more intentionality to the ways we support each other and our effect on the health of the whole. Specifically, what do fungal investments look like? How can we learn to communicate like micorrhizae, who eagerly share nutrients, protect young saplings and warn each other of danger? How I tend my garden to build soil, the way I recycle, eat, behave and invest and communicate, and the activities I choose to engage in, all have microbial implications - social and biological. And, remember, soil microbes are invisible, except to each other.
When asked about how to measure the positive effects of their strategy, Sallie and Esther are fond of saying, “Impact metrics are a disservice because metrics can’t talk about context, and context is everything.” Spoken like a true natural system.