Josh Tickell in his new book, Kiss the Ground, travels to Paris and across the United States to research and raise awareness of the role and potential that soil has to mitigate climate change and alleviate hunger. During these travels, Tickell speaks with government officials, ranchers, soil scientists, farmers, and chefs to detail the ways soil has been abused by degenerative agricultural practices as well as the ways soil can be regenerated by regenerative agricultural practices.
If you’ve never thought at all about the soil under your feet, many of the issues that Tickell brings to the forefront may seem revelatory. Who knew that soil could be so complex? Though even if you’ve previously dug deeply into these topics and are aware of this complexity, the various experts and practitioners Tickell interviews provide numerous insights into how and why the agricultural system is broken, and what can be done to fix it.
The first chapter that includes an interview with France’s Agricultural Minister Stephane Le Foil, explains how soil’s role has been overlooked in mitigating climate change. Interviews in subsequent chapters with former NRCS agronomist Ray Archuleta, farmer Gabe Brown, and Rodale Institute soil scientist Dr. Kristine Nichols explain how tillage and chemical inputs have degraded soil and released massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere as well as how non-till agriculture, cover crops and well managed grazing can put a lot of that carbon back into the ground (sequester carbon) where it belongs while improving soil health which, in turn, provides drought resistance and reduces the need for pesticides.
Other chapters with historical overviews, for example, of synthetic fertilizer use provide valuable context as to how and why we have the current “conventional” agricultural systems that we do.
Tickell’s book succeeds in questioning conventions. Where his book falls short is where Tickell too readily accepts some of the prevailing norms, specifically in regards to nutrition. Here he talks to “Mr. Epidemiology” himself, Walter Willett, who ironically laments about the influence of agricultural interests while pushing polyunsaturated fats based on research funded in part by, you guessed it, special interests that profit from his findings. What kind of special interests? Corporations like Unilever that make numerous lines of products out of polyunsaturated fats derived largely from soy, corn and other seed oil crops. Tickell seemed impressed with the Harvard affiliation, but the truth is industries use prestigious academic institutions to further their own interests (Josh should read University Inc by Jennifer Washburn).
People seem to forget that animal feeds derived from these crops were all originally by-products of the seed oil industry that begot the processed food industry. So if you really want to see a damning correlation, look at when Crisco replaced lard, margarine replaced butter, and poly-unsaturated fats from industrialized derived vegetable oils replaced animal fats. When you do, you’ll see that heart disease and other modern illnesses neatly correlate with these recent evolutionary dietary changes. Therefore if you really want to decrease the expansion of soy bean and corn crops, you need to put ruminants back on grass, feed monogastric livestock farmed insects, and stop using so many polyunsaturated fats as cooking oils and ingredients in processed foods.
Tickell’s “eat less meat” argument also should have been immediately qualified, meaning the emphasis should have been on not eating factory raised meats and sourcing ranchers using regenerative methods. When people do this they tend to eat less meat anyway. But the real emphasis should be on being conscientious as to how ALL your food is raised or grown because people should also eat less food, including plants and seed oils that rely on forms of agriculture that are also very destructive. The unqualified “eat less meat” mantra reinforces a false dichotomy. Production methods, including the appropriateness of production location, are often more important than the product raised or grown when assessing environmental impacts.
One really wishes Tickell just stuck to the soil science instead of meandering through the nebulous world of epidemiological nutritional science or prescribing dietary patterns. Here, with soil science, he could have interviewed someone like David Montgomery or Jo Robinson and discussed how healthier soil ecosystems increase the macro and micro nutrient content of the food grown that we eat directly as plants or indirectly through livestock.
But all in all, Tickell’s book is an excellent and accessible addition to the overlooked topics of soil health and soil’s role in climate change. Therefore, if I had to give Kiss the Ground a grade based on a score of 1 to 100, I’d give the book a 96 out of 100 or 4.75 stars out of 5 stars. Though the discussion on nutrition was lacking enough to lose some points here. Regardless, hopefully the forthcoming documentary film based on this book will be even more compelling and make even more people aware of the important role soil has in shaping our personal and our environment’s health. Though hopefully that film will also leave its segment with Walter Willett on the cutting room floor.