Regenerative agriculture explained, but not its politics

'Kiss the Ground' is available on Netflix.

Kiss the Ground
84 minutes
Directed by Josh & Rebecca Ticknell, narrated by Woody Harrelson, 2020
Available on Netflix.

Kiss the Ground is a film about regenerative agriculture – agriculture that repairs the soil and improves it, sequestering carbon and creating resilience. Regenerative agriculture is not an alternative to the phasing out of fossil fuels, but an essential adjunct.

The first part of the film discusses the issues: the build-up of greenhouse gases, the destruction of soil by chemical farming and soil tillage, the toxic affects of chemicals on soil and intestinal microbes, the separation of cropping and livestock.

The chemical weapons of wartime were transferred to agriculture in the 1940s – the new enemy was nature. This created the powerful industrial food production system that destroys soil. A third of the world’s topsoil has been lost since the 1970s.

The narrator, actor Woody Harrelson, states that 40% of all the carbohydrates that plants make through photosynthesis is pumped into the soil to feed the microbes that feed the plant. The by-product is humus, the stable form of soil carbon.

This process fails in chemically treated soil because fertilisers and pesticides stop the microbes from operating. Therefore, more chemicals are needed. The soil cannot absorb and hold water, resulting in more severe droughts and floods.

This role of soil carbon and how it is created and lost is little understood by farmers and farmer advisors, according to the film, though it is sound science.

The film goes on to interview regenerative farmers who are reversing the damage. Year-round soil cover of living plants is essential, as bare soil loses carbon. Multi-species cover crops in the non-cropping half of the year are necessary, with grazing animals to manage them. Soil tillage is soil destructive.

These farmers have returned livestock to farming systems. Herds of buffalos constantly on the move created the Great Plains and now grazing cattle can restore them. As grazers, livestock are net soil carbon sequesters if the natural grazing systems of the buffalo are followed – short intensive grazing followed by long pasture recovery periods.  

Politics is seen as a barrier to regenerative agriculture, particularly the US crop subsidy scheme, which exacerbates the problem by encouraging large-scale planting of corn and soy that require large amounts of chemical inputs. US obstruction of international efforts to deal with climate change is fleetingly mentioned.

The film’s focus is on US agriculture. The issues of unsustainability are similar in Australia, yet Australian croppers adopted no-till farming decades ago without achieving sustainability. Australia does not subsidise crop production, and Australia did sign the Paris soil carbon accords. Obviously, the obstacles to regenerative farming lie much deeper than the film portrays.

The solutions promoted in the film are personal. About 5% of US farmers are using soil building techniques – this is increasing due to the efforts of promoters, such as individual farmers on speaking tours. Consumer food purchasing choices can create incentives for farmers to change. Confronting the political system, however, is not on the agenda of the film.

The film ends by saying that together we can regenerate Earth, but that demanding paper straws instead of plastic and composting food waste is not enough. This is an understatement.

The film is well made and absorbing. It is well worth viewing for those who want a better understanding of what regenerative agriculture looks like, but not on how to achieve it.