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Why We Need to Care More About Soil When Discussing Global Warming

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drought_soil_interview.jpg2012 was the hottest year ever in the U.S., it was reported this week. From extreme droughts to floods to fires to Hurricane Sandy, it's hard to deny anymore that something serious is happening to the planet. One of the answers for averting famine and extinction could be in the soil, a concept we learned about from USDA scientist, teacher and writer, Calvin Bey.

You're an organic farming expert so first explain why it's important to eat organic instead of conventional food.
It's much more than a matter of nutrition. Modern, commercial production of food is destroying the soil. Soil erosion is not a very pizzazzy, sexy issue and very few people seem to know about it. If you compare the soils around the Gulf of Mexico from years ago to now, hundreds of millions of pounds is gone. A whole ecosystem is being destroyed, it's so full of pollutants, high nitrates and phosphates. The state with the most eroded soil is Iowa, traditionally idyllic farming land.

So what exactly is happening?
Adding more fertilizer and GMOs [Genetically Modified Organisms] are destroying the biology of the soil. More nutrients leach out of the system. The bottom line is there's a finite amount of soil and if it's not sustainable, it means the extinction of the human species.

Extinction.
That's the direction we're headed. From a scientific standpoint, what is going on right now is an assault on the wholesomeness of nature. Chemicals, fertilizers, GMOs and pesticides scream of in-your-face defiance against the land. Humans will lose.

It's not just in the U.S., it's happening all over.
I've spent quite a bit of time in Haiti over the years and it's so bad down there. They were trying to emulate American farming, adding fertilizer and pesticides, and it's just horrendous.

Proposition 37 in California, which would have forced labeling of genetically modified food, failed to pass in November. Is there any hope?
There are going to be some disasters that will really show people what's happening. In India, cattle go into the fields and eat GMO cotton after the harvest and they're dying. Cattle's biological makeup hasn't evolved to digest it. GMOs are so unnoticeable to the general public. You can't tell from looking at a rice crop that it's a GMO thing. But when disasters happen on a big scale, people will notice.

What about the flavor of organically grown food vs. conventionally grown?
My wife and I have an organic garden and when people come here I say, 'Taste a carrot.' I'll hear 'That tastes like the carrots my grandfather used to grow.' There's a nutrient-dense aspect of it affecting the sugar content and relationship of the minerals.

But studies have shown organic doesn't always mean better in terms of nutrients.
You can do things poorly organically, if you don't know what you're doing. Some people think it's just about adding more compost to the soil and everything will be more luscious. But you can add too much compost and have too much nitrogen. There has to be a balance. The real difference shows up in extreme weather conditions. There were 29 studies of organic vs. conventional conditions of crops and there was very little difference in production/yield. But when there was a drought, organic soil won hands-down. Plants still grew while the chemical soil was barren.

There's so much more cancer now, too.
Absolutely. I think a lot of diseases -- diabetes, autism, cancer -- are food and environment-related. If you eat an apple that's full of toxins, it goes into your body. I saw a horrifying study of tumors in rats who were fed GMO corn.

Other than buying organic, what can we as consumers do?
We've got to educate people, very difficult to do. When I go into a store I ask where the organic food is and which ones have GMOs. Many people who work in these stores have no clue. I'll ask to talk to the manager and the manager won't have a clue. But if three people go in and ask, there will be an awareness. It's got to be grassroots. I often say this: The problem is too big and too important to leave to big business or the government.

What else?
I encourage people to read Joel Salatin's Folks, This Ain't Normal. He's doing more to help this cause than people give him credit for. He took an old farm that was basically a wasteland and turned it into something productive. It shows how we can still turn things around, rebuild our soil. We can stop doing research -- and I'm a researcher. We've got lots of answers. It's a matter of putting them into action.

For people who don't have much money, how can you justify the cost of organics?
You've got to think long term instead of instant gratification. You are helping to promote sustainable production of agriculture instead of destroying the planet. The world needs to pause, take a breath of fresh air, and change our value system regarding how we use our natural resources.

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