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Official website: https://kissthegroundmovie.com/
The actor Woody Harrelson narrates the documentary “Kiss the Ground,” a frenetic but ultimately persuasive and optimistic plan to counter the climate crisis. Streaming on Netflix, the film makes a case for the healing power of soil, arguing that its capacity to sequester carbon could be the key to reversing the effects of climate change.
[soft melodic music playing] [music intensifies]
[narrator] Planet Earth, home to a growing number of Homo sapiens and a whole lot of other creatures. It’s a great place to live. When it comes to the future of our small planet… Now to a dire warning about climate change. Natural disasters like hurricanes or wildfires…
[reporter 1] An unprecedented decline in nature threatening humanity.
[reporter 2] Sixth mass extinction event is already well underway…
[narrator] There’s so much bad news about our planet, it’s overwhelming. The fear that we’re headed for a cliff puts most of us into a state of paralysis. The truth is… I’ve given up. And the odds are so have you. But what if there was another path? This is the story of a simple solution, a way to heal our planet and keep our species off the extinction list. In fact, the solution I’m talking about is right under our feet, and it’s as old as dirt. We call it soil, earth, or ground. And due to its vast scale, and its ability to sequester immense quantities of greenhouse gases, it could just be the one thing that can balance our climate, replenish our fresh water supplies, and feed the world. That’s why some people are racing to save our soil in hopes our soil just might… save us.
[alarm beeping] [groans]
[man 1] I am a conservation agronomist. I have been in every state, all the way from Alaska, to Puerto Rico, to Hawaii. I’ve also been asked to go speak in Europe, Australia… I just haven’t had the time. If we get the soil right, we can fix a lot of our issues. Healthy soils lead to a healthy plant. Healthy plant, healthy animal, healthy human, healthy water, healthy climate. This is what this is about today. Learning how the soil works and learning how to farm like nature does. I have learned my job is to drop a seed. And the more you farm like nature, the more we can reduce your inputs, and the more money you can make. It’s my calling. Just as simple as that. Actually, this is one… I’ve lived in four or five states. Everywhere I go and work, we’re still having the same problem. Massive erosion. Erosion is when soil becomes dirt.
[introspective music playing softly]
[Harrelson] Rapid erosion began long ago when humans developed the plow. Its purpose was to break the soil in order to sow seeds. By the Bronze Age, vast areas around cities were plowed up to plant grains. But as their soils eroded, those once-great empires vanished into dust. But we don’t have to look back thousands of years to see the dangers of erosion. In the 1930s, America experienced the largest man-made environmental disaster in history. It was called the Dust Bowl. It was largely caused by farmers tilling the once-fertile Midwestern Plains and leaving the soil exposed. By the end of 1934, roughly 200 million acres of cropland were permanently damaged. [train whistle blows] On a whistle stop train tour, President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the destruction of America’s soil firsthand. In response, he created the Soil Conservation Service to save the nation’s soil.
[Roosevelt] What I have seen confirms me in the belief that I’ve had for a long time… that we’re going to win on this problem. It relates to working out a plan of cooperation with nature instead of going along with what we’ve been doing in the past trying to buck nature.
[crowd cheering and applauding]
[Harrelson] The practice of plowing and tilling the soil continues to this day. [hammering] But so does Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Soil Conservation Service. It was made part of the US Department of Agriculture, and it’s now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the NRCS. We want the water to leave through a living plant.
[Harrelson] Today, the NRC has field agents, like Ray, trying to teach farmers to reduce tilling… Microbes live in there, and that’s called the porous sphere.
[Harrelson] …and reduce the spraying of industrial chemicals that damage the soil. Tillage is one of the most intrusive things we do in modern agriculture. It is not our friend.
[humorous music playing]
[Harrelson] The message is simple, but getting that message out… is difficult. We have a social problem. We have an education issue. And until we get that right, we can’t fix our ecological issues. I have been in NRCS for 31 years. It’s kind of amazing to me as I was teaching all over the country. I’m going, wow, our producers don’t really know how the soil works. They don’t understand the basic ecological principles. Everything runs by carbon. We’re built by carbon. The soil microbes run by carbon. Carbon is the driving engine. It runs the system.
[Harrelson] But when it comes to the role of carbon in our world, there’s… a bit of confusion. To be specific, carbon dioxide is a gas. We breathe it out, and plants breathe it in. We also make carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels. But carbon isn’t bad. In fact, it’s the basis for all life on Earth.
[man 2] There’s a tendency right now for us to be at war with carbon. Carbon’s the bad guy. And I think this is a lost opportunity. Carbon’s the good guy. We’re carbon. I’m-I’m 16 percent carbon, and all of it came from eating vegetation and things that eat vegetation.
[woman 1] Plants use sunlight as energy, and they pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, they turn it into a carbon fuel, and that’s how they grow. But 40 percent of that carbon fuel, they send down to their roots. They’re leaking it out in a very strategic way to soil microorganisms. Plants are feeding soil microorganisms carbon, and the soil microorganisms are bringing plants mineral nutrients. And in the process of all that, those soil microorganisms make a carbon glue out of that carbon fuel. And they make habitat in the soil. They make little pockets in the soil to control the flow of air and water. And that’s one of the ways that carbon gets fixed in the soil.
[Harrelson] In other words, soil has the unique ability to sequester carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That’s a big deal. And what’s even more amazing: the soil contains an entire universe of life. Here, I went to years of college, and I took soil science. I didn’t know. I really did not know how the soil worked. It’s alive.
[“You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate playing]
[woman 2] In every handful of healthy soil, there more organisms than the number of people who’ve ever lived on planet Earth.
♪ I believe in miracles ♪ ♪ Where you from ♪ -♪ You sexy thing ♪ -♪ Sexy thing, you… ♪
[Nichols] And those organisms are processing organic matter that’s in the soil and putting the nutrients into a form that the plant needs. Comparing the soil microbial diversity to the microbial diversity we’re now seeing inside the human organism, you have more bacterial cells in your body than you have human cells. Yeah, we’re about one percent human and 99 percent microbes. [laughing] It’s the truth.
[Nichols] The food that we eat, we actually chew and break that food material down into little bits that get eaten by the bacteria in our gut. When you eat kale, [chuckles] let’s say, when you’re eating kale, your body doesn’t consume kale. The bacteria consumed the kale. And you feed off of what the bacteria have processed and released by the consumption of that kale. The key to health is eating dirt. [laughs] What I mean by that is we need to eat what’s in the dirt that’s transferred to the plants, that then we eat and create health.
[women speaking Portuguese]
[lighthearted music playing]
[woman 3] You know, my husband is an athlete for a living, so he wants to provide his body with the best possible nutrients so he can perform. [players grunting] I beat my body down so much over the course of the season, the last thing I want to do is add a bunch of food that I won’t be able to properly digest, that won’t be the kind of nutrition that I need in order to repair and regenerate my body the way that it needs to be. And, of course, the quality of the soil is huge because it is the beginning of the quality of the food. That quality of food provides quality health. It all comes from the Earth. Big Mama. Our health and the health of our planet are connected.
[ethereal music playing]
If we choose healthy food, there is a reciprocation. Not only we feel better, we are healthier, but the Earth is healthier.
[Harrelson] Taking care of the microbes in the soil is critical for human health. But spraying the soil with toxic chemicals, well, does something else.
[Nichols] All of our soils that are under chemical conventional agriculture are almost completely devoid of microorganisms.
[Harrelson] Spraying the soil with toxic chemicals kills the very microbes we need to give us health, and pull the carbon from the atmosphere. The more tilling that’s done, the weaker the soil gets, and the more farmers feel compelled to use chemical sprays. This is the vicious cycle of industrial agriculture. And that cycle was developed as a result of war. [cannons firing] The roots of industrial agriculture go back to a German scientist named Fritz Haber. [ominous music playing] Haber invented a process for making synthetic nitrogen fertilizer that increased food production. His other scientific breakthrough was the creation of poisons known as pesticides. Haber used his pesticides as the first chemical weapons in history. [somber orchestral music playing] Then he developed the poison used in the gas chambers of the Holocaust. When the war ended, US chemical companies brought Haber’s poisons back to America and rebranded his toxic chemicals as pesticides for American farms.
[reporter 3] Dow set out to demonstrate the effectiveness of its chemical killers on a nationwide scale.
[woman 4] When the war ended, all the energy that went into fighting the enemies in the world… went into fighting the enemies on the farm.
[Ohlson] All of a sudden, chemical fertilizer nitrogen was available, and farmers could toss that on a field. Even if they hadn’t taken care of their soil, they could get a good crop for a while.
[Harrelson] Together, these wartime innovations created the most powerful industrial food production system the world had ever seen.
[dramatic orchestral music playing]
[Nichols] We created an infrastructure around single types of industry, and then we decoupled livestock and row crop production. We found people who are really good at raising livestock, and you found people who were really good at growing row crops, and you split those two camps.
[Ohlson] That ushered in this big philosophical shift in terms of how we approached farming. Instead of understanding and honoring natural processes, we could just throw out these chemicals. We just throw out more and more of them. It kept going up and up and up. It takes more nitrogen now to raise a bushel of grain than it did in 1960.
[Archuleta] Our chemical fertilizers mask the problem of degraded soils. Modern agriculture was not designed for the betterment of the soil.
[Harrelson] Today, our most common crops are genetically altered to resist the spraying of toxic pesticides. For example, the number one crop in the United States, field corn, is almost entirely sprayed with glyphosate, a chemical suspected to cause cancer that’s so over sprayed, it’s found its way into our drinking water.
[Rodale] These chemicals, which were considered dangerous to begin with, are now being used at rates that would have been inconceivable twenty years ago.
[Harrelson] Every year, for every American alive, three pounds of toxic chemicals are sprayed onto the food grown on our farms.
[Rodale] That goes into the soil. It goes into the water. It goes into our bodies. It’s not just on the food you eat. It’s everywhere.
[Harrelson] Most of the agricultural industries’ pesticides and herbicides transfer directly through breast milk to babies. There are over 200 peer-reviewed studies that correlate the spraying of these toxic chemicals to effects like ADD in children, pediatric cancers, and birth defects. That’s why juries have begun to award billions of dollars in damages to people who contracted cancer after using glyphosate. We know, for example, that glyphosate, which is also known as Roundup, has an effect on the gut microbiome that may lead to disturbances that can create disease, including cancer.
[Harrelson] A big reason these chemicals make us sick is because just as toxic chemicals kill the microbes in the soil, they also kill the microbes in our bodies. What I tell people is, your body can handle acute stresses, but it cannot handle chronic stresses. The soil ecosystem is the same way. If you keep dumping the fungicides, you keep dumping the herbicide, you keep dumping the insecticide, you keep doing the tillage… chronic stress. It doesn’t function anymore.
[suspenseful music playing]
[Harrelson] Since chemical agriculture ramped up worldwide in the 1970s, we have lost one third of the Earth’s topsoil. But industrial agriculture isn’t just harming our soils. It’s also affecting something much larger.
[ominous music playing]
[man 3] The most massive tsunami, perfect storm, is bearing down upon us. But fossil fuels… carbon, coal, and gas… are by no means the only thing that is causing climate change. Now, because the fate of water and carbon are tied to soil organic matter, when we damage soils, you give off carbon. Carbon goes back to the atmosphere.
[Harrelson] Healthy soils absorb water and carbon dioxide. But when we destroy soil, it releases water and carbon dioxide. This dries out the soil and turns it into dust. The process is called desertification. And how we deal with it could determine the fate of more than just our climate.
[Savory] Desertification is a fancy word for land that is turning to desert, and this happens only when we create too much bare ground.
[Archuleta] Soil and the plant and the climate are connected. If you don’t have a living plant, you’re going to have more evaporation. What we want is transpiration, when the moisture leaves through the plant. When it does that, it increases humidity. And when it increases the humidity, we have more rain. Sixty percent of our rainfall comes from the ocean. But a lot of people don’t realize 40 percent comes from small water cycles where our rain comes from inland. What’s going on is we disrupted the small water cycles. That’s when you have too much sensible heat coming off bare soil. You’re having these huge vortexes of hot air going out. Instead of attracting the rain, it’s pushing the rain clouds away.
[Savory] Take one square meter of soil and make it bare, and I promise you, you will find it much colder at dawn and much hotter at mid-day than that same piece of ground if it’s just covered with plant litter. You have changed the microclimate. Now, by the time you’re doing that… on more than half the world’s land… you are changing macroclimate.
[Harrelson] Desertification of our soils is a pressing threat to our climate and our species.
[Savory] But I have for you a very simple message. About two-thirds of the world is desertifying.
[somber music playing]
[Harrelson] As soils turn to dust around the world, every year, 40 million people are pushed off their land. By 2050, it’s estimated that one billion people will be refugees of soil desertification.
[Savory] More than 20 civilizations, in all regions of the world, have failed because of agriculture damaging the environment. Their communities could not handle the deteriorating environment and the rising population. Globally, that’s what we’re doing today. Poor land leads to poor people. Poor people leads to social breakdown. Poor land leads to increasing frequency of floods and droughts, and mass immigration across borders and into cities. And it’s leading to ideal recruitment conditions. What we know right now is the way we’re feeding ourselves is undermining the very ecology that we’re dependent upon. So the long-term prognosis for our survival on this planet, given business as usual, is very, very poor.
[Harrelson] According to the United Nations, the world’s remaining topsoil will be gone within 60 years. In other words, unless we find a way to save our soils, we have 60 harvests left. The global scale of the problems we face may seem insurmountable. But in every fight that seems unwinnable, there are those who refuse to give up.
[Archuleta] Oh, let’s see. Let’s do that. We’ll do a couple of demos. [indistinct chattering] We’re very fortunate to have Ray Archuleta with us today. Ray, as you can tell, is someone that has quite a bit of notoriety. He’s got his own– He’s got his own reality show. Now, that– [audience laughing] With that, I’m gonna turn the floor over to Ray, and, Ray, we appreciate you being here.
Thank you very much.
Thank you, Ray. This is a supercomputer model by NASA. We’re concerned of the red and purples being CO2. I want you to notice the dates. That is February. March. Now, what are we doing March? April? What do we do in modern agriculture in April? We are tilling. We’re tilling the land. And look at the huge plumes of CO2. Look at the dates. May. Now, let’s see what happens around June. Look at the colors change. Ladies and gentlemen, what is happening in June?
[uplifting music playing]
[laughs] Do you see how powerful the living plants are? Can you imagine if we had all our rangeland and all our cropland covered? A covered planet is a healthy planet. We can fix a lot of our climate issues if we bring the CO2 down into a living plant and put it back into the soil where it belongs.
[Ohlson] Agriculture is the biggest way that humans impact our landscape. We have unleashed, through agriculture, over the centuries, over the millennia, carbon from the land, and it’s now up in the atmosphere. It’s now part of that legacy load of carbon dioxide. Many people are coming to this discussion about soil health because it can bring that carbon back down and put it in the ground.
First, he’s an environmentalist and the editor of Drawdown, the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. Please welcome Paul Hawken. Tell us why your plan is different and why it is the most comprehensive. Well, it’s very different because it’s the first one ever.
[audience cheering and applauding]
[Hawken] You cannot achieve drawdown without bio sequestration. Bio sequestration is using plants, trees, perennials, and techniques of grazing and farming to capture carbon and store it in the sink of the soil, and retain it for decades, if not centuries. What we did is mapped, measured, and modeled the hundred most substantive solutions to global warming. And what I mean by solutions, I mean things that are at hand. We know how to do it. There’s scaling. And if we continue to scale in a rigorous, but reasonable way, over 30 years, we can reverse global warming.
[Ohlson] When you talk to people about this great technology that has existed for millions of years that takes carbon out of the atmosphere and stores it safely in the soil, and that it’s called plants working with soil microorganisms, it seems too simple.
[Harrelson] Putting our atmospheric carbon down into our soil may be a simple idea, but to do it on a global scale requires… politics. And when it comes to the politics of climate change, well, let’s just say… there’s a lot of hot air.
[classic French music playing]
[Harrelson] In 2015, the United Nations held a climate summit in Paris. It was called COP 21. Forty thousand delegates from 196 countries from all over the world met to reach an agreement on how to address climate change. There were presentations and meetings and speeches, and speeches, and speeches.
[robot] My name is Bunkin. Please touch my screen.
[Harrelson] And there was one proposal that offered real hope, and it was presented by this guy.
[“Requiem Pour Un C” by Serge Gainsbourg playing]
[Le Foll in French] I come from a village in the region called “La Sarthe,” a small village, with a population of 256 who were involved in the world of rural farming. There were lots of farmers. So I was interested in farming very early in life.
[Le Foll speaking French indistinctly]
[Harrelson] France maintains the largest agricultural science institution in Europe. It’s called INRA, and it’s been studying soil for over a hundred years. INRA recently developed a program called the Four for 1000 Initiative. Their goal is to increase the carbon content of the world’s soils by .4 percent annually. That would sequester the same amount of carbon that humanity emits each year.
[group speaking French indistinctly]
[“Requiem Pour Un C” continues]
[Nichols] The soil environment can hold more carbon than the atmosphere and plants living on the surface of the soil combined. We have an incredible ability to be able to store that carbon in the soil in a relatively short period of time.
[Le Foll in French] The primary tool of farming is the soil. It’s not the tractor. It’s not the combine-harvester. It’s not the satellite. It’s the soil. What’s really at stake here is what happens after COP 21 in Paris. If all people here can become aware of the role of the soil, and if people can get that the soil can be loaded up with carbon, and then after that, we must all take action to achieve these objectives.
[“Requiem Pour Un C” continues]
[Harrelson] At a side meeting at COP 21, Monsieur Le Foll, the French Minister of Agriculture, presented an idea that just might change the world.
[woman speaking in French indistinctly]
[in French] Ladies, gentlemen, and dear colleagues, with all the farmland, but also, with all the soils of the forests, we have an enormous potential. The fact that we are able to implement an actual answer to the struggle against climate change, an answer that could equal the same amount as the amount of carbon humanity emits each year. That’s colossal. Four parts per thousand is the capacity all of us have together to be able to succeed. Thank you.
[Harrelson in English] At the Four for 1000 event, many countries signed Stéphane Le Foll’s pledge to draw carbon down into their soils.
[man 4] Thirty countries from around the world signing on to, what I believe, is going to be one of the most significant changes in agriculture. Because to achieve this Four for 1000, we have to change the way we do agriculture.
[Harrelson] And doing agriculture in a way that sequesters carbon requires a radical reduction in toxic pesticides, GMOs, and synthetic chemicals. But the three largest contributors to carbon dioxide and the three largest agricultural producers were missing from the agreement. India, the United States, and China did not show.
[interviewer] Does it frustrate you that America did not sign on to the agreement?
[in French] Yes, it’s frustrating. Because this is the first time an entire country, France, yes, a smaller country than the US, but a big agricultural country, has proposed a global and political initiative that links together the fight against global warming with changing the way we farm. But when it comes to the US, they’re not there yet.
[Harrelson] And after all that, the United States announced that it had pulled entirely out of the Paris Agreement. If we are going to succeed in balancing our climate, we do need to switch to renewable energies. But none of that will alter the tremendous amount of carbon we’ve already put into the atmosphere. Since 1750, when the Industrial Revolution began, we’ve pumped about 1,000 billion tons, also known as gigatons, of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s called our legacy load of carbon. And even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today, that legacy load of carbon will still be there.
[Ohlson] That legacy load of carbon dioxide is still gonna be warming the atmosphere for decades, if not centuries. So if all we talk about is reducing emissions, it’s not enough.
[Harrelson] If electric cars and solar panels aren’t enough, then what is the solution? The only goal that makes sense for humanity is drawdown, a year-to-year reduction in carbon in the upper atmosphere. Anything else is climate chaos. If we want to achieve drawdown, we have to go thank the Earth and start to farm and grow our plants and trees in an entirely different way. Once you achieve drawdown, within 20 years, you have cooling. You have the beginning of cooling. So, now, we have a horizon that if you’re 20, 30 years old, you can say, “In my lifetime, we can achieve this.”
[Harrelson] In other words, the very practices that heal our soils will also heal our climate.
[gentle piano music playing]
To stabilize Earth’s climate, we can use the most powerful carbon capture technologies: the photosynthesis of plants and the microorganisms in the soil. And the one type of farming that does this the best and draws down the most carbon is based on the concept of regeneration, which simply means to repair the damage we’ve done and make things better.
[upbeat guitar music playing]
[man 5] So we are sitting in a food forest. This is agroforestry. It’s agriculture through trees, tree diversification.
[Mraz vocalizing to guitar] I’ve got an avocado tree, banana tree, fig tree, coffee trees. ♪ …and put my hands in the dirt… ♪ We went from a lot of crop of single Hass avocado to now having about 40 different fruit varieties onsite. ♪ ‘Cause my home is where My food is grown ♪ ♪ I’m goin’ back to the earth… ♪ By diversifying, we can now have harvests every month. If you’re looking to do something that would greatly impact Mother Earth, plant a tree. You don’t need acres and acres and acres to build a food forest. You really just need a few hundred square feet. [vocalizing continues] You’re gonna look outside one day ago and go, “What is something we buy every day at the grocery store, that instead of waiting for it to be shipped around the world to me, what can I put in my own backyard that I can do myself?”
♪ And to truly be forgiven We must all get back to livin’ ♪ ♪ With the land in harmony ♪ ♪ I’m goin’ back to the earth ♪ ♪ I’m goin’ back… ♪
[Harrelson] Regenerative agriculture grows more food per acre. It’s scalable to our entire agricultural system. And what’s more, it’s already being done right now, today.
[man 6] I’m a rancher. That’s how I prefer to be thought of is I’m a rancher. A farmer technically grows crops. A rancher raises livestock. Why I like to be considered a rancher is because… I’m all about living things and taking part in living ecosystems. And, to me, that’s what my operation is about: a living ecosystem. [tractor motor whirs] We purchased this place in 1991. And for the first two years, I was farming conventionally. Heavy, heavy tillage. High use of synthetics. 1995 came along, and the day before I was going to start combining, I lost 100 percent of our crop to a hail storm. So we were totally wiped out. No income from our crops. That was really tough to take ’cause we didn’t have crop insurance. 1996 came along, we lost 100 percent of our crop to hail, again. 1997 came along… we dried out. Nobody combined an acre. There was a major drought in this area. 1998 came along, and we lost 80 percent of our crop to hail. So we were four years with basically no crop income. The neighbors were all taking bets and waiting for my land. Times were really getting tough financially, and the banker didn’t want to loan me any money to buy inputs. The best thing that could have happened. I wasn’t gonna fail. I really had to start focusing, how can I make this farm and ranch get these soils to produce a crop without all these inputs? So I started to be a studier of soil ecosystems. I actually went back and I read Thomas Jefferson’s old journals ’cause I was trying to figure out how did they do this previous to the use of all these synthetics.
[Archuleta] We have been promoting no till for many, many years. No tillage means you don’t till the soil at all. You just plant directly into it. This is a no-till drill. No-till drills are available everywhere in the world. This will help you grow topsoil. Any type of tillage equipment will destroy topsoil. This is your firming wheel. This holds this residue so the disc here can cut it, just making a small slit. The seed travels down at a specific rate per acre. This comes around, moves a small amount of soil right over that seed. We’re keeping all this armor on the soil surface in order to protect the soil from wind erosion, water erosion, so we can grow crops on much less moisture with this type of a system. Rain falls on this, it’s going to go right into the soil. Rain falls on bare soil, it’s going to run off, and then it’s going to evaporate very quickly.
[Harrelson] Soil that is not tilled stores more water, thus increasing microbe growth, which leads to more plant growth and even to more local rainfall. This is the virtuous cycle of regeneration. Gabe Brown’s soil is also pulling more carbon out of the atmosphere. For every one percent increase in organic matter, an acre of soil draws down ten more tons of carbon.
[Brown] I mean, that’s huge. We have to reduce tillage. We gotta grow cover crops. We have to get a living root all the time. We can’t have these bare periods with nothing growing on them. We’ve gotta start using these principles to restore the water cycle. And it is fixable. So I’m taking you to a field here that is a multi-species cover crop. [uplifting music playing] The purpose of a cover crop is to enhance the life and the function of the soil. Think of it this way. If I draw a monoculture on this field, we’d only be feeding the soil biology one type of root exudate. I’m growing 19 species here. We’re accelerating biological time. We’re feeding the soil biology what it would take a conventional farmer 19 years to do. I’m doing it in one year. So people might ask, “How do you get any money from this then?” Our livestock will graze this during the winter, speeding up the process of regenerating those soils. Animals grazing living plants are a part of the carbon cycle. Here in the Northern Plains, our soils were formed by large herds of bison and elk being moved by predators, grazing a landscape, trampling that carbon, the plants, onto the soil surface. Not coming back for maybe a year. Allowing full recovery.
[Harrelson] It wasn’t that long ago that over 60 million buffalo roamed the continent. [gunshot] In an attempt to starve the Native Americans, the US military and the railroads killed most of the buffalo. By the time the culling ended, only a few thousand of the majestic animals remained. Where buffalo once roamed, industrial agriculture now grows hundreds of millions of acres of crops just to feed animals. And those animals are concentrated into feedlots. In turn, feedlots produce a tremendous amount of greenhouse gases.
[Nichols] A feedlot situation has a positive amount of greenhouse gases being emitted. In a grazing situation, the data shows that we actually get greenhouse gases sequestered. So in one situation, you get emissions, and in the other situation, you get sequestration. The problem isn’t the animal. The problem is where the animals are at.
[dramatic music playing]
Cows can be good. That is one of the most controversial statements… of mankind at this point. Using cattle and allowing them to roam and graze, land grazing, can literally revive enough space to create a tremendous amount of drawdown. I’m from Southeast Louisiana. I grew up in an incredibly delicate ecosystem. Conservation was always a very serious part of my life. I had no idea that the Earth was desertifying. [helicopter blades whirring] I got on a plane from New York City to fly to Zimbabwe to meet Allan Savory so he could show us the difference between desertification and regeneration. Land that has been holistically managed through planned grazing using cattle, -the most vilified animal in the world.
We are in Africa right now driving through a field that has been under Allan Savory’s holistic management for nine years, and it is an Eden. This is what you call high grass. Using livestock to reverse desertification is totally scalable to about two-thirds of the world’s land, and nothing else is. And, frankly, that can be done at extremely low cost.
[birds chirping, insects chittering]
Here we are. This is what it should be like. You’ve been working on this land for eight or nine years. It went from a place of turning into a total desert, and using hooved herding herbivores. You have literally transformed that, what we’ve been seeing, -into this. -Yeah. How in the hell do you make this happen?
[Savory] So the urine and the hooves of the animals are what caused this grass to grow. That livestock is never on more than a hectare of this land, about 2.5 acres, -never more than three days. -Right. And they’re never back on that piece of land under about six to nine months. -Wow. -So no plant can get overgrazed. You can come any day of the year, anywhere on this land, and you will see no livestock because they will be on less than one hectare of land. And unless we take you there, you won’t even know it. Dealing with this beast of climate change, a lot of people don’t understand that this… -helps climate change. -Yes. -This sequesters carbon. -Yeah. This takes the one thing that we so desperately need out of the air, and it holds it, and it makes oxygen.
[Savory] Yeah, if we can produce solid grassland, you can pull down enormous amounts of carbon back into the soil. Two-thirds of the world, roughly, is grasslands in savannas where the rainfall is too low to support a solid canopy of trees giving you soil cover. So grass is essentially what has to stabilize that soil. You look at this, and you realize this is what the world should look like. This is what Africa should look like. This is what South and Central America should look like. This is what Texas should look like. This is how we win. We can get the Earth back to the garden of Eden that it once was by regeneration.
[Harrelson] When used smartly, herbivores can pull down carbon and reverse desertification. But it doesn’t just work for Africa. It works everywhere in the world.
[idyllic music playing]
[woman 5] So it’s long pants today, right? You guys are gonna ride horses? Yeah.
[woman 5] Okay. I was raised in a rural area in Washington, adopted by a Lakota elder. We were out in nature every day. I found permaculture, and that was very influential in my life, where I could see that there could be a permanent agriculture… an agriculture that not only fed the planet, but also fed the people in a way that regenerated and didn’t deplete resources.
[Harrelson] Holistic ranchers, like the Markegards, use careful planning so their cows sequester carbon and actually regenerate the land.
[Doniga] So this is our grazing plan and control chart. This tells us where we’re planning to have the cattle when.
[upbeat guitar music playing]
[Doniga] Let’s see. It’s July 22nd, so they were in G1, and they are going to move here. All these paddocks correlate with a map that I have here. So these are all segments of fencing where the cattle are. It tells me how big it is. I can record observations, species, all right in here in the field. We manage over 8,000 acres throughout the Bay Area, so we’re constantly on the move.
[man 7] I never get bored. I never get bored.
[Ohlson] They call cows mobile microbe tanks, you know, because cows employ microbes in their rumen to break down the fibers in food. So when cows poop, that is just like a steaming mound of microbes dumped onto the land, and it’s– it-it, you know, it’s a powerful stuff for the land.
[Doniga] So it’s been about three months since the cattle have been in this pasture. Did you hear that little pop when I popped it out? That was all these root hairs popping off. There’s just thousands and thousands of feet of these root hairs that are interconnected with all of these other bunch grasses and all of these other species through their root hairs and also through the mycorrhiza fungi. The cattle will come along, and they’ll eat the tops off. What happens when the grasses get bitten off is these roots slough off. And what is that root made out of? Carbon. We’re taking carbon from the atmosphere via photosynthesis into the plant, and then it’s going through the plant into the root system, that carbon, and it sloughs off and turns into humus… where it belongs. [ethereal music playing] The form of agriculture that we use creates billions of lives in the form of soil microbes, in nematodes, in grassland birds. All of that wildlife is flourishing under an agriculture system versus a tilled crop field, which is denude of life.
[Harrelson] In the vast majority of those tilled fields grow one thing: animal feed. Corn, soy, and hay. These crops and the feedlots that rely on them exist only because they are subsidized by our tax dollars. I was speaking to a group of corn and soybean producers from Missouri this past winter. And the one guy stood up and said, “Why would I want to plant anything else than corn and beans when I’m guaranteed a profit before I even go on the field?”
[Harrelson] The United States Department of Agriculture uses something called the Commodity Credit Corporation to give farmers price guarantees for growing specific crops. In the current system, taxpayers subsidize farmers to grow the crops that feed the animals that live in feedlots, which emit greenhouse gases. The result? Our land is turning to dust, and our farmers are going bust.
[Brown] And then I come back and ask them, now, how much money would you be making if the government wasn’t subsidizing your operation? And they know. They know the answer. They’re not gonna be making money. I dropped off all those programs. I tell producers I don’t want to be on welfare anymore.
[Harrelson] Even with genetically-altered seeds, chemical sprays, and government subsidies, most farmers struggle to make a few dollars per acre. But on its 5,000 acres, Brown’s ranch generates over $100 profit per acre per year. If you build a healthy farm ecosystem, you’re going to be resilient. You’re going to take the risk out of it. Yes, I grow corn. I don’t grow soybeans, but I grow peas. That’s good. But I also grow wheat, and barley, and oats, vetch, and triticale, and alfalfa, grass-finished beef, lamb, pork, honey, vegetables, all these other products. I could care less what the price of corn or beans are because they’re such a small fraction of my operation. I built resiliency into the ecosystem. Most of the land that’s managed by farmers is owned by somebody other than the farmer. We believe landowners, as they come to understand the long-term benefits of managing for soil health, will encourage their farmers to prioritize this. Once a farmer starts to manage for soil health and see those economic benefits, they won’t turn back.
[Harrelson] By switching to regenerative agriculture, American farmers could increase their profits by over 100 billion dollars annually, and virtually eliminate their subsidies. You know, we have a motto on our operation. We want to sign the back of the check and not the front. It’s a pretty good motto. It leaves a lot more in your pocket. [audience chuckling] The federal farm program we have today is the most detrimental thing there is to regenerative agriculture.
[Harrelson] In order for our governments to support the shift to regeneration, the people may have to lead the way. And the odds are there are some things that you can do to save our soils today.
[Maher] This is everybody’s life every hour of the day almost. Food waste. Yeah, food waste is ubiquitous. Everybody does it.
[Harrelson] Well, not everybody does it.
[“Latin Rock Party” by Kevin Edward Jarvis playing]
There are continents and other really large regions that are getting hit with a double whammy of higher temperatures and drought. This kills soil. It kills life. One of the solutions to that challenge is to collect the food scraps from cities, like San Francisco, turn them into compost, and get it onto local farms. And that helps them retain water because compost is a natural sponge. The unfortunate reality is most trash or garbage gets incinerated or sent to a landfill. We need to model nature.
[man 8] I had the good fortune of being mayor when we brought the United Nations World Environment Day into our city. We made it a week-long celebration of the environment and a call to action. And one of the specific strategies was reducing waste.
[Harrelson] San Francisco residents are actually fined for not putting compost into the green bin.
[Newsom] We incentivize people to keep things out of the black bins. When you have nothing in a black bin, we don’t charge you. When you have a ton of stuff in the black bin, we charge you a lot. So your goal is to get it in the green and blue bins, the composting and the recycling bins. You want to move the mouse, gotta move the cheese.
[Reed] In San Francisco, we’re collecting 700 tons of food scraps and plant cuttings per day.
[“Latin Rock Party” continues]
[Reed] It’s 5:00 in the morning… and we’re making compost. This is the most important kind of garbage that there is because this is where the nutrients are, and this is where the carbon is. The compost arrives, the food scraps from the restaurants and people’s homes, and we put them in this sorting system. Sixty days ago, this was egg shells, and chicken bones, and vegetable peelings. And, now, it’s a beautiful finished compost. And I’m digging in, and it’s quite warm here. It’s still composting very actively. We collect our food scraps. We put them in the green bin. It goes off to Recology’s compost facility. We turn it into compost, and it gets on a farm. That’s a simple solution.
[Newsom] San Francisco became the most sustainable big city in the United States of America in just a few short years, and we grew our economy. And if San Francisco can prove an ideal, then that success can be replicated in other cities, in other states, and other nations around the rest of the world. Compost is the natural decomposition of organic matter in nature. In a forest floor, it’s when the leaves drop, the fungi and bacteria take it over and literally build the soil at the root zone. Compost is all about community, from the community of microbes that are breaking down the pile, to the community of individuals in Los Angeles that are physically turning and sifting and contributing to that pile. I collect food scraps from restaurants, manure from zoos. Manure. Do you know why? To keep this stuff out of landfills and use it to make good, rich dirt. That’s why. How do we take waste and repurpose and reuse it? Because it’s really not waste. My name is Pashon. It’s Pashon Murray. So that was my destiny, to be passionate about the environment.
[upbeat island music playing]
[woman 6] When we went to Haiti to run this compost sanitation pilot… everybody kind of thought I was crazy. And maybe I am. [laughs]
I’m Steven. Yeah.
And you’re the…?
The [bleep] man.
And I’m the [bleep] woman.
Yeah. We are the [bleep] men around, man.
Yeah. Well Haiti happened, obviously, this earthquake that was just so devastating. We all felt like we wanted to do something. And Patricia, she’s a problem solver. As soon as she got there, she was like, “Okay, they have a sanitation problem.” The water under the soil was getting contaminated.
[Patricia] 2.5 billion people don’t have sanitation around the world, and that means people can get diseases. So we train people around the world to have composting toilets so they can learn how to collect and treat their own waste for their community.
[David] The most noticeable change that we saw was the smell. The experience of living around the latrines was night and day. We’re in front of this compost pile. -Do you guys smell anything bad here?
[Patricia] Part of the strength of this system is that it’s very easy to learn. You don’t have to order some part or component. People can learn how to do this everywhere. So here is the spare container. Here is the sawdust available.
[Patricia] What I love about thermophilic composting is that it helps address multiple climate change issues. It helps us protect water resources. Treating it and getting rid of all the pathogens, and ending up with compost. And when it’s finished, it will be like beautiful dirt. You can then amend the soil and have more crop growth.
[David] The only problem with it is that people are hung up on the fact that it’s human feces. We just, in general, as humans, have a poo phobia. But what most people don’t know is that all across America, if you buy some potting mix, it probably has biosolids in it, and that comes from human sewage. We eat food. We poop it out. We can then treat it and create soil that has good content for the plants, and then the circle just goes around and around. The poop has to stay in the loop. This is a very nice toilet, and I would love to go to the bathroom in your toilet. Excuse me, please. [all laughing]
[Harrelson] Compost is just one of a suite of soil-based carbon capture solutions. The more we choose regenerative foods, the more that farmers will grow them. We’re at a critical moment in human history. There could be a way to eat food that heals the planet. The way we’re articulating it is the regenerative diet.
[man 9] I’ve personally been vegan for 20 years. I’ve just kind of proven in my own world, like, hey, you can rock life in a… very healthy, strong, and powerful fashion on a plant-based diet. If you’re eating meat, if you can eat it from a lot more correct high-level farms.
[Engelhart] If we do eat meat, we need to eat meat that comes from pasture-raised, grass-fed, humanely-killed animals.
[Bronner] This is the most crucial choice all of us can make for the future of the planet. What are we eating? What kind of farming systems are we supporting? Are we regenerating the Earth, or are we degenerating?
[Brown] So what we have here are two of our egg-mobiles. Approximately three days after the cattle move through an area and graze, we’ll bring the land hens in. They truly are free range. They could walk to California if they so choose. What we did here is we went to the local grocer, and we bought a dozen cage-free, all-natural, humanely-raised eggs. We’ll reach in there and crack one of those open. Now, what we have here is one from our pastured land hens. Ours on the left is much darker colored. Now, watch this. See how that breaks open rather easily? It’s runny. Now, look at this. I can poke my finger into there several times before we finally break it. Now, look at the color of that yolk and look at the difference. Ours are out on pasture. They eat whatever they can forage for. These, although they’re cage-free, they are no doubt in confinement, and they’re fed mostly grain. Ours are going to be much higher in nutrient density as compared to these. And what you’re really feeling there is the nutrients and the complexity of regenerative agriculture.
[Harrelson] Eating a regenerative diet is important, but so is working with the people who grow our food.
[Archuleta] Today, we estimate five percent or less of farms are managed for soil health. The Nature Conservancy has partnered with the National Corn Growers Association to establish the Soil Health Partnership. Our goal is to grow this to 50 percent of US farms managed for soil health by 2025.
[Brown] This idea of the Soil Health Academy started about five years ago when Ray first stepped onto my ranch and we first met. Little did we know what would become of that plan to try and move regeneration forward. It’s finally come to fruition. -Ray Archuleta. -Jesse. Hi, Jesse. Good to see you. Let me– let me start off with myself. My name is, uh, Ray Archuleta. I have 32 years of government service. Our goal was to make the soil healthy to teach more these ecological principles. We wanted to… to mentor, to inspire people that they’re part of the planet, and that we’re gonna have a better relationship with it.
[Brown] Used to be you’d pick up a farm magazine, and there wasn’t a single article about soil health. Now, you cannot pick one up without there bein’ some article about soil health. That gives me hope. We can improve soil health much, much faster than we used to think possible. Sometimes, when I give presentations, I get this group that’s just, no way. It won’t happen here. Can’t happen here. So I offer them this challenge. I said, “I will bet my ranch against yours that I can get it to work on your operation.” Because the principles of soil health, the least amount of mechanical disturbance, diversity, armor on the soil, living root at all times, animal integration… Those principles are universal. There is zero doubt, and I mean zero doubt in my mind I can get these practices to work anywhere in the world. If you look over here, we have my neighbor’s land that has been chemical fallowed. It has had nothing growing on it for over a year except for the few Roundup-resistant weeds that are on here. It’s an ecological desert. Then you look over at our paddocks, you have a diversity of different plant species. You have insects. You have wildlife, plus the livestock grazing on it. We’re capturing sunlight from early in the spring till late in the fall, converting that sunlight into liquid carbon to drive and fuel the system. There you have soil. Over on this side, you have dirt. Where do you want your food to come from? Which model do you want your food to be produced from? The answer is pretty simple to me.
[Harrelson] All over our planet, people are using the practices of regeneration to heal the land and balance the climate. Some of these projects are big. We know that about 25 percent of the world’s landmass has been degraded by human beings over historical time. [intense music playing] When we look at the cradles of civilization, Greece and Rome, we find that many of these places have turned into deserts. The sand is blowing across the ruins of once-great civilizations. Loess Plateau, the cradle of Chinese civilization. That was the place where settled agriculture first began. When I was asked to film the baseline study in the Loess Plateau, I found myself alone standing on a mountain top, and I could look in 360 degrees, and there was no vegetation.
This was fundamentally, ecologically destroyed. It was called “the most eroded place on Earth,” filled with miserably poor people. So I felt that I had to spend the rest of my life dealing with this. [cheerful music playing] It was hard to imagine, at that time, that you could restore that. So from about 1994 till 2009, 14 years, an area of 35,000 square kilometers, approximately the size of Belgium, they had the top Chinese scientists, they had international scientists from the World Bank supporting them… They created mapping systems with satellites so that every watershed had a unique address. The results were… stunning. [majestic orchestral music playing] Hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty. We met people who were illiterate, and their children now go to the top universities in the country.
[“I Won’t Give Up” by Jason Mraz playing] [Liu] Human beings emerged in paradise. If we restore all the degraded land on the Earth, we can return to paradise. If we start now to build a restoration economy, a regeneration economy, this is the way forward. To see a stream return and flow to bring back fertile soils, to see biodiversity return to a place that was completely devastated, this is where everyone can find tremendous satisfaction.
[Mraz] ♪ When I look into your eyes ♪ ♪ It’s like watchin’ the night sky ♪ ♪ Or a beautiful sunrise ♪ ♪ For there’s so much they hold ♪
[Liu] So let’s restore a little bit of paradise every day. It’s not that difficult. If we stop distracting ourselves with shiny objects, and we start to think about what’s really important to us, to see biodiversity returned to a place it was completely devastated… This is where everyone can find tremendous satisfaction and the meaning of our lives.
[Doniga] We’re all in this together. [chuckles] Every action that we take affects every other action like a ripple in the pond. So what decision are you gonna make that will make a positive impact on this beautiful planet so that our great grandchildren, seven generations in the future, can actually go up and hug an old growth redwood tree, and swim in clean waters, and be able to open their mouths and drink while they’re swimming? And what is it that we can do today so that our children can flourish in the abundance that we’ve created by our decisions?
[Archuleta] I will drive 100 miles, 1,000 miles if we have to, to save one farm. To open one heart and one mind. It’s that one mind that you change. You don’t know if it’ll affect another mind, another heart. It’s what happened to us. It changed our hearts, and it changed our lives.
[Rodale] No, it’s not about religion. It’s not about politics. It’s about love. And if you love something or you love somebody, you want to understand them, and you want to, like, take care of them and protect them and keep them safe. And that’s what we’re all here to do. Even like the little mycorrhiza fungi, and the worms, and the bacteria. And if we take care of them, they’ll take care of us.
[Harrelson] From the smallest microbes to the largest creatures, our blue planet pulses with life. For millions of years, it has self-healed and self-balanced. But, today, our species faces its biggest test. Our mission is simple. We must harness the regenerative power of Earth, itself. I’ll make you a deal. I won’t give up, and neither should you.
[Mraz] ♪ ‘Cause even the stars, they burn ♪ ♪ Some even fall to the earth ♪ ♪ We got a lot to learn ♪ ♪ God knows we’re worth it ♪ ♪ No, I won’t give up ♪ ♪ I don’t wanna be Someone who walks away so easily ♪ ♪ I’m here to stay and make the difference that I can make ♪ ♪ Our differences, they do a lot To teach us how to use ♪ ♪ The tools and gifts we got Yeah, we got a lot at stake ♪ ♪ And in the end, you’re still my friend At least we did intend ♪ ♪ For us to work, we didn’t break We didn’t burn ♪ ♪ We had to learn how to bend Without the world caving in ♪ ♪ I had to learn what I got And what I’m not ♪ ♪ And who I am ♪ ♪ I won’t give up on us ♪ ♪ Even if the skies get rough ♪ ♪ I’m giving you all my love ♪ ♪ I’m still looking up ♪ ♪ I’m still looking up ♪ -♪ Well, I won’t give up ♪ -♪ No, I won’t give in ♪ -♪ God knows, I’m tough enough ♪ -♪ I am tough, I am loved ♪ -♪ We got a lot to learn ♪ -♪ We’re alive, we are loved ♪ -♪ God knows, we’re worth it ♪ -♪ And we’re worth it ♪ ♪ I won’t give up on us ♪ ♪ Even if the skies get rough ♪ ♪ I’m givin’ you all my love ♪ ♪ I’m still lookin’ up ♪ What is carbon dioxide? It’s, um… Comes from… Um… That’s a trick question for me. You caught me off guard on that. I guess that would be carbon and two atoms– two molecules of dio– of whatever. [mumbling] Something bad? It’s poison that you’re breathing. And it will destroy you. What are things that you’re doing in your life to make an impact around climate change? -Um… -Um… -Um… -Uh… -Uh… -Hmm… I mean, I like to, you know, do my part when I can, like, with my metal straw.
Going to the paper straws.
No plastic straws. Paper straws versus plastic. Recycled straws. Every time I come here, I feel energized.
[Harrelson] If recycling and paper straws are our only hope, then we are in really big trouble. We can absolutely reverse climate change by making things better, not just fixing what was bad. Could you imagine that? So, we’re not just– we’re not– no longer degenerating, we are regenerating.
[man 10] That sound awesome. I want regeneration.
[Mraz] ♪ Father to my mother Who died when I was 12 ♪ ♪ Who didn’t leave a fortune ♪ ♪ But a different kind of wealth ♪ ♪ A tree for me to climb in ♪ ♪ With fruit under its leaves ♪ ♪ Which season after season Became quite a legacy ♪ ♪ More than just a farmer He was a brilliant engineer ♪ ♪ Whose footsteps took him farther As they fertilized the fields ♪ ♪ In oil and ancient stock He placed new varieties ♪ ♪ A believer in the future ♪ ♪ He was a man who planted trees ♪ ♪ Go lay your roots down, son ♪ ♪ Let your love shine on every word ♪ ♪ Lay your roots down here ♪ ♪ There’s a thousand ways to feel ♪ ♪ He taught me how to kiss the ground ♪ ♪ And be grateful with my words aloud ♪ ♪ Even the air is different now ♪ ♪ And I’m gonna make him proud ♪ ♪ Singin’ go ♪ ♪ Lay your roots down, son ♪ ♪ Let your love shine on every word ♪ ♪ Lay your roots down here ♪ ♪ There’s a thousand ways to near ♪ ♪ Kiss the ground, kiss the ground Kiss the ground ♪ ♪ Kiss the ground, kiss the ground Kiss the ground ♪ ♪ Kiss the ground, kiss the ground Kiss the ground ♪ ♪ Kiss the ground, kiss the ground Kiss the ground ♪