New Soil Documentary Promises a Powerful Solution to the Growing Effects of Climate Change

Published by
Virginia Gewin

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

For many, the fires raging across the West have brought home not only the realities of climate change—but the urgent need to restore the land. For this reason, the filmmakers behind the new documentary, Kiss the Ground, released globally on Netflix today, are hoping that the burgeoning movement to restore soil health will give their audience a reason to hope.

Narrated by actor Woody Harrelson, the film offers a timely overview of how regenerating crop and ranchlands is one of the best ways to clean waterways, halt desertification, and perhaps most important—draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the Earth, a crucial step towards reversing climate change.

Seven years in the making, the star-studded documentary from Big Picture Ranch filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell, Kiss the Ground shines a light on scientists’ sobering projections—including that roughly two-thirds of the world is turning to desert, which could yield up to 1 billion refugees by 2050. But the take-home message is empowering rather than terrifying: The way we grow food can be an environmental solution instead of adding to the looming catastrophe.

The film is a piece of a multi-pronged effort to encourage farmers to transition to regenerative practices such as growing a diversity of plants, keeping roots in the soil at all times (i.e., growing cover crops between cash crops), composting, and grazing cattle on perennial forages.

The Kiss the Ground non-profit organization was co-founded by Los Angeles-based Finian Makepeace and Ryland Engelhart. Makepeace, a singer-songwriter, says learning that healthy soils can mitigate climate change in 2013 was life-altering.

“We decided to commit our lives to spreading the word that humanity can turn the corner,” Makepeace told Civil Eats. “Regenerating farmland offers an option to reverse the damage we’ve done.”

To that end, the organization has a variety of resources on their website. A Farmland Program aims to train 5,000 farmers to adopt regenerative practices by 2025 by offering mentorship, soil testing, and financial assistance. A Stewardship Program aims to educate and empower a team of regenerative agriculture advocates to spread the word. Since 2018, Makepeace and his colleagues have helped train over 2,500 soil advocates from over 25 countries.

Josh and Rebecca Tickell spoke to Civil Eats about their hopes for the film, the work they did to perfect its visual messaging, and the urgency of the current moment.

What spurred you to take on this topic?

The Tickell Family. (Photo credit: Fancy Free Photography)

Josh Tickell: We had already made three films on oil, and we were looking for something that was more exciting and easier to put into a movie format, yet still had an environmental focus. A couple of our friends—including Ryland Englehart—started talking to us about carbon sequestration. We weren’t convinced after watching a very dry scientific presentation on the topic, but the more we learned about how soil is a central piece of climate, water, and biodiversity, it became clear that we should do this.

What is the target audience and what do you want them to walk away with?

Rebecca Tickell: We want soil to go mainstream. We want to close the information gap and show people that soil offers an opportunity to drawdown atmospheric carbon emissions and reverse desertification. In addition to the original documentary, we’ve made two shorter versions of the film for two target demographics—school children and farmers. We want society to move from being paralyzed by inaction to empowered to help agriculture make this transition.

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What kind of feedback have you gotten from farmers?

Rebecca: My dad, who was, until recently, a corn and soybean farmer in Ohio, loved the film. He did not use regenerative practices beyond rotating his crops. He, like many, stopped farming because it was no longer profitable. He was the fourth generation of farmers in our family. We may not agree politically on issues like climate change, but when we dig down, we agree that spraying chemicals on food affects human health. We are carrying on the family tradition here on a five-acre avocado and citrus hobby farm that uses regenerative practices.

Most farmers I’ve talked to want to improve their soil, but there are barriers that make it difficult. And they definitely get sick of being blamed for all of society’s environmental ills. How do we create a better system together?

Josh: We’ve essentially created a system that is more or less paying farmers to go out of business. That sounds crazy. Through the commodity crop insurance program, we’ve locked farmers into a cycle of demanding high yields for more or less three crops on soil that is degrading very rapidly. We know the inputs needed for those three crops are growing faster than the rate of increase for yield per acre. The only way to stay ahead in that game is to get bigger.

But there is another system; it will require risk and experimentation. Often times, it’s more attractive to slow boil to death in what is known rather than take a risk. It’s no fault of farmers; it’s human nature. We’ve become comfortable and complacent with systems that are killing American farms. We need farmers and consumers to pull on levers together to create a fulcrum able to change the system.

I interviewed Rattan Lal recently, and he has calculated that plants and soils could sequester up to 330 gigatons of carbon, effectively one-third of the legacy carbon in the atmosphere. Do you worry that regenerative agriculture’s potential impact may be oversold?

Josh: There are two dangers—oversimplifying the fact that fixing soil will fix the climate or not going forward with a solution that has so much potential. Dr. Lal is an extremely accomplished scientist, but other researchers we spoke to think even more sequestration is possible. Even if regenerative agriculture offers one-third of a solution, it’s still much better than anything else we’ve got. Let’s regenerate a billion acres and see where we end up. We’re going to err on the side of optimism.

What was the most powerful moment to film?

Rebecca: A magical moment was when we visited Doniga Markegard at Markegard Family Ranch in Half Moon Bay, California. Our children had milk squirted in their mouths and got to play in an amazing treehouse featured on HGTV. Unfortunately, fires in California burned down that treehouse. We have been witnessing the real-time effects of climate change—which makes the importance of each of the messages in our film that much stronger. It’s high stakes. We have images in the film of climate refugees. On a personal level, after this year’s record number of fires, I feel like we are all connected.

I liked how you used carbon bubbles to visually demonstrate soil emissions and carbon capture throughout the film. Can you describe some of the stylistic decisions you made?

Josh: The carbon bubbles were inspired by our partner on the film, the Center for Food Safety, which came up with that basic idea based on another film with Michael Pollan. Once we had that building block, we had to develop visual language to convey legacy carbon and what drawdown would look like. No one had drawn a reverse carbon curve before. We sat at environmentalist Paul Hawken’s kitchen table and, after a few hundred revisions, and consultation with dozens of soil scientists and farmers, we turned it into something people could understand.

What do you hope the film achieves?

Josh: Beyond the fact that more people understand that soil is awesome, we want viewers to feel empowered to take immediate action and feel confident that we can do something to tackle climate change. Ultimately, we hope to take regeneration into a global context, see a billion acres regenerated—and even achieve global cooling.

Any final thoughts?

Josh: When the U.S. entered the last dust bowl, the USDA sent their best soil scientists and archeologists to figure out how to have permanent agriculture. That was the mission. Walter Lowdermilk and colleagues traveled around the world to determine the factors that allowed cultures to persist. The result was a report called, “Conquest of the Land through 7,000 Years.” Essentially, there are two possibilities for civilization—to be here or not.

We’re currently at a turning point in a civilization-level conversation. The choices we make around soil and food in the next 10 to 20 years will determine the next thousand years of human civilization. Do we want a dry rocky desert or verdant biodiverse ecosystem that produces healthy humans? To achieve the latter, it’s time to get serious about soil.

Virginia Gewin

Virginia Gewin is a freelance science journalist who covers how humans are profoundly altering the environment – from climate change to biodiversity loss – and undertaking extraordinary endeavors to preserve nature. Her work has appeared in Nature, Popular Science, Scientific American, The Atlantic, Bloomberg, bioGraphic, Discover, Science, Washington Post, Civil Eats, Ensia, Yale e360, Modern Farmer, Portland Monthly and many others.

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Virginia Gewin

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