By Dr. Mercola
In nature, plants thrive because of a symbiotic
relationship with their surrounding environment,
including mircroorganisms in the soil
This relationship is irreparably damaged by the
excessive use of synthetic fertilizers
Not tilling and planting winter cover crops are
examples of “game-changing” practices that could help
make soils “net mitigating,” meaning they capture more
greenhouse gases than they emit
It’s easy to take soil for granted. That is, until you lose
it. The dirt beneath your feet is arguably one of the most
under-appreciated assets on the planet. Without it, life would
largely cease to exist while, when at its prime, this “black
gold” gives life.
In nature, plants thrive because of a symbiotic relationship
with their surrounding environment, including mircroorganisms
in the soil.
The rhizosphere is the area immediately around a plant’s root.
It contains microorganisms that thrive on chemicals released
from the plant’s roots. These chemicals, known as exudates,
include carbohydrates, phytochemicals and other compounds.
In exchange for the exudates, the root microbiome supplies the
plant with important metabolites for health, which, along with
exposure to pests and pathogens, helps plants produce
A well-fed root microbiome will also supply plants with ample
nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) — the three
ingredients that also make up most synthetic fertilizer (NPK).
Unfortunately, while nature’s system results in handsome
rewards, including more nutritious foods and less environmental
pollution, modern-day farmers have largely become stuck in
a cycle of dousing crops with synthetic chemicals that
destroys the soil and, ultimately, the environment.
Why Synthetic Fertilizers Are Ruining the Planet
Synthetic fertilizers make
sense in theory, and they do make
plants grow bigger and faster. The problem is that the plants
are not necessarily healthier.
In fact, they miss out on the symbiotic relationship with
their root microbiome.
Because they’re being supplied with NPK, the plant no longer
“wastes” energy producing exudates to feed its microbiome.
Therefore, it receives fewer metabolites for health in return.
The end result is plants that look good on the outside but
lack minerals, phytochemicals and defenses against pests and
disease on the inside.
Further, as reported by Rick Haney, a U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) soil scientist, less than 50 percent of
synthetic fertilizers applied to crops are used by the plants.
Haney told Orion Magazine:1
“Farmers are risk averse … They’ve borrowed a half million
dollars for a crop that could die tomorrow. The last thing
they want to worry about is whether they put on enough
fertilizer. They always put on too much, just to be safe.”
The excess fertlizer runs off into the environment, with
disastrous effects. As fertilizer runs off of farms in
agricultural states like Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin,
Missouri and others, it enters the Mississippi River, leading
to an overabundance of nutrients, including nitrogen and
phosphorus, in the water.
This, in turn, leads to the development of algal blooms, which
alter the food chain and deplete oxygen, leading to dead
zones. One of the largest dead zones worldwide can be found in
the Gulf of Mexico, beginning at the Mississippi River delta.2 Fisheries
in the Gulf of Mexico have been destroyed as a result.
Soil Health Campaign Educates Farmers How to Work With Nature
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) convenes
sessions around the U.S. in an effort to improve soil health
and teach farmers how to use less fertilizer and produce the
same, and in some cases better, yields. Haney told Orion
“Our entire agriculture industry is based on chemical
inputs, but soil is not a chemistry set … It’s a
biological system. We’ve treated it like a chemistry set
because the chemistry is easier to measure than the soil
While standard soil tests measure chemical properties in the
soil, Haney developed a test to measure soil biology. A rich
microscopic community is what Haney is after. Only this can
support the fascinatingly complex process of plant growth and,
at the same time, naturally cut carbon emissions by fixing
carbon in the soil.
It’s estimated that one-third of the surplus carbon dioxide in
the atmosphere stems from poor land-management processes that
contribute to the loss of carbon, as carbon dioxide, from
in Orion Magazine, Kristin Ohlson, author of “The Soil Will
Save Us,” explained:5
“When we admire good soil’s dark chocolate-cake sponginess
and sweet smell, we’re admiring the handiwork of trillions
of soil microorganisms over time.
They eat carbon and expire carbon dioxide, just as we do,
but they also “fix” a percentage of that carbon in the
soil. Barring disturbance, it stays there for a very long
… Photosynthesis is the only process that safely and
inexpensively removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,
allowing carbon that is a problem in the skies to become a
boon for the land.
Based on this principle, one hundred governments and
nonprofits launched the 4/1000 Initiative … calling for an
increase of carbon in the world’s soils by 0.4 percent per
This relatively small boost will not only radically
improve soil fertility but also, the coalition claims,
halt the annual rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”
Three 'Game-Changing' Practices for Agriculture
Carbon farming is a simple premise that involves using
agricultural methods that can naturally trap carbon dioxide in
the ground (for decades, centuries or more) while also
absorbing it from the air.
The process, known as “carbon
sequestration,” could help mitigate greenhouse gas
Regenerate the soil
Limit agricultural water usage with no till and
Increase crop yields
Reduce the need for agricultural chemicals and
additives, if not eliminate such need entirely in
Reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels
Reduce air and water pollution by lessening the
need for herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic
A recent study published in the journal Nature further
revealed that by managing soils to reduce greenhouse gases, it
could lead to a wealth of “side benefits,” including healthier
soils and ecosystems, less fertilizer runoff and less soil
In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Phil
Robertson of Michigan State University explained three
“game-changing” practices that could help make soils “net
mitigating,” meaning they capture more greenhouse gases than
No-till cultivation, in which crops are grown without
Advanced nitrogen fertilizer management, or applying only
minimal amounts of fertilizer
The latter strategy alone, cover crops, can virtually
eliminate the need for irrigation when done right. The cover
crops also act as insulation, so the soil doesn't get as hot
or cold as it would if bare. This allows microbes to thrive
Also, the soil biology heats up the soil, which can extend
your overall growing season in colder areas, and it helps
prevent soil erosion. In 2012, a Census of Agriculture report
found just over 10 million acres of farmland (out of 390
million total) were being planted with cover crops, but its
use is growing.
In an annual survey of farmers taken in 2014, farmers reported
planting double the mean acreage in cover crops reported in
who adopt the technique have reported better soil texture,
less erosion, and increased crop yields.
Planting Winter Cover Crops May Make Farmers Money
This is key, because convincing most farmers to change their
practices solely for environmental reasons isn’t an easy
proposition, especially if it also involves increased costs to
the farmer. Robertson recommends using conservation payments,
which have been in place for decades, to pay farmers to adopt
more sustainable agricultural practices.
Some farmers also change their ways after seeing the success
of their neighbors’ farms. Farmer Doug Anson, who along with
his family plants cover crops on 13,000 of their 20,000 acres
of Indiana farmland, told The New York Times:9
“In the part of a field where we had planted cover crops,
we were getting 20 to 25 bushels of corn more per acre
than in places where no cover crops had been planted …
That showed me it made financial sense to do this.”
A research project that’s been ongoing for two decades in
Michigan, comparing crop plots using four different farming
methods, has also shown promise for cover crops. The fields
that received small amounts of fertilizer and were planted
with winter cover crops had yields similar to conventional
fields with far less nitrogen leaching.10
The U.S. government has even set up a small subsidy system to
help farmers offset the costs of cover crops and other regenerative
practices, but one major hurdle to cover crops becoming
mainstream involves absentee land owners.
Many farmers grow crops on land they do not own but rather
lease; they therefore have little incentive to want to improve
soil quality on land they do not own. Landowners could,
however, offer incentives to farmers to use regenerative
practices that would, in turn, increase the value of their
Farmers and Landowners Can Get Paid for 'Carbon Credits'
Conventional farmers have much to gain from trying out
carbon-sequestration practices like planting cover crops,
applying compost and not tilling; they can accumulate, and be
paid for, carbon credits.
Farmers can even use the USDA’s COMET-Farm online tool to find
out their approximate carbon footprint, as well as experiment
to see which land-management practices sequester the most
carbon on their farm.12 How
does it work? Modern Farmer explained:13
“Land-based carbon sequestration is measured in metric
tons per hectare (2.5 acres); one metric ton earns one
carbon credit, making the math easy. In California — the
only state in the US with a full-fledged cap-and-trade
program — the current value of a carbon credit is around
$12 to $13. (Farmers in other states, by the way, are
eligible to earn credits through the California carbon
Alberta, which has the most robust carbon market in Canada
and rewards several agricultural practices with carbon
credits, raised the price of carbon credits from $15 to
$20 on January 1, 2016; in 2017, the price will go up to
$30 per credit.”
Unfortunately, the way the system is currently set up, farmers
already using beneficial conservation practices are not
eligible for carbon credits. Only those switching land from
conventional agriculture to soil-conservation practices may
receive credits, with the exception of spreading compost over
grazed grasslands, which are used to raise grass-fed beef and
other pastured animal products.
This recently approved carbon credit “protocol” was largely
the result of the Marin Carbon Project, which found a single
1/2-inch dusting of compost on rangeland can boost the soil’s
carbon storage for at least 30 years.
If you’re a farmer interested in receiving carbon credits,
you’ll need to sign up with a carbon credit registry such as
the Climate Action Reserve, the American Carbon Registry, or
and the Verified Carbon Standard. An inspector will visit your
farm regularly to ensure you’ve carried out the protocols
Regenerating Our Soil Is the Solution
It’s clear that paying attention to our soils is crucial to
our health and future. Fortunately, change is occurring both
on large and small scales. The USDA’s NRCS has become very
committed to understanding and teaching about natural soil
health and regenerative agriculture
Not only will regenerating our soils lead to improved food
production, it will also address a majority of resource
concerns, such as water. When you add carbon back into the
soil, such as by adding mulch or cover crops, the carbon feeds mycorrhizal
eventually produce glomalin, which may be even better than
humic acid at retaining water. This means you naturally limit
your irrigation needs and make your garden or fields more
resilient during droughts.
Considering data suggesting we may lose all commercial
topsoil, globally, in the next 60 years if we keep going at
the current rate, such changes cannot move fast enough. The NRCS
website is an
excellent resource for anyone interested in learning more
about soil health, including farmers wanting to change their
At present, about 10 percent of U.S. farmers have started
incorporating practices to address soil health. Only about 2
percent have transitioned to full-on regenerative land
management, however. On an individual level, you can get
involved by growing some of your own food using these
regenerative principles on a small scale.
Click here to
see the above article on Dr. Mercola's website.