Op-ed: ‘Kiss the Ground’ Misses the Complexity of Climate Solutions in the Soil

The new Netflix documentary misses the opportunity to explore the diversity of solutions to climate change on the farm.



Wildfires are raging all along the west. Hurricanes in the east. Snow quickly followed a heat wave in the middle of the country. With growing national recognition of climate change’s role in exacerbating the conditions that have led to earlier and longer seasons of destruction, the time is right to lift up tried and true solutions.

Recently released on Netflix, Kiss the Ground does just that: it focuses on the importance of cultivating healthy soils and brings it to a broad audience. The movie doesn’t just dive into the microbiology of soil and soil carbon interactions, it also covers the four main principles of soil health: increasing diversity, minimizing soil disturbance, keeping above ground covered and below ground active at all times, and animal integration.

This overview of soil health mechanics and related impacts for our environmental and human health is not only easy to digest, but fun and cute, with tidbits you’ll remember, like soil microbes dancing to “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate. At the core lies the message that we each have the power to do something about this and it will take these individual commitments, coupled together.

Just as soil contains an ecosystem of microbes, nutrients and critters that need to be attended to and considered together, the solutions to climate change are also an ecosystem with different aspects that deserve attention as well.

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Unfortunately, the too simple message of soil health as the solution to climate change obscures the multi-faceted approached that is needed. Similarly, attributing the destruction of our nation’s soils to a lack of knowledge and individual willpower ignores the legacy of market pressures and federal policy failures that have designed and perpetuated the industrial system we recognize today. Instead, the narrative puts the soil depletion onus on the farmer, propagating the false and ultimately harmful dichotomy of “good” versus “bad” farmer. Large, chemical-dependent farms are precisely the systems that need to be brought into the movement: alienation does not advance the shared goal of regenerating soil.

Daniella, Jepson Prairie Organics, showing finished compost to legislative staff. (Photo courtesy of CalCAN)

Daniella, Jepson Prairie Organics, showing finished compost to legislative staff. (Photo courtesy of CalCAN)

The brief mention of politics and programs does not paint a picture of what public programs are available to farmers—whether federal or state-level. Instead, the “politics” around soil health and climate change is only briefly hinted at with mention of a single meeting during COP21 in 2015 that garnered no U.S. commitments to agricultural solutions.

Certainly, climate change is a global issue and requires global coordination. It also requires local action. Instead of noting the range of public conservation programs provided by the federal government’s 90-year-old Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) on which many farmers depend to underwrite the cost of conservation practices, the USDA is named as the largest threat to the viability of regenerative agriculture.

Also left unrecognized is the Indigenous knowledge and practices that tended to soil health long before the first settler colonies existed. Many throughout the movie mention that this seemingly newly discovered climate change solution isn’t new, if only because soil and microbes have been interacting for millennia. Nowhere is it acknowledged the Indigenous people and cultures who have been implementing these practices and thriving long before celebrities were.

What could have made the conversation more robust, albeit nuanced? A systems-approach to the agricultural solutions to climate change: soil health is just one aspect. Breaking it down to the individual piece does not solve the whole and can invite too narrow (often market-based) solutions (read: corporate carbon markets).

Additionally, a discussion about the accessibility of these practices—both economically and socially—would have rounded out references to differing adoption rates. It’s not simply a lack of knowledge. Farmers are experts in their field. Countless societal and emotional pressures weigh on a decision to change practices, to change your identity as a farmer, without even factoring in the high likelihood of financial instability, especially when extreme weather changes related to the climate crisis make the business even more risky.

Steven Sinton Ranch in Templeton, California. Photo Credit: USDA NRCS

Steven Sinton Ranch in Templeton, California. (Photo Credit: USDA NRCS)

These solutions need public investment—that is, not for profit—and the technical resources to help farmers adapt and shift. Examples of these financial and technical resources exist, not only at the federal level and in California, but in many other states.

It’s not only awareness and individual choice that will help solve the climate crisis: it takes all the players, big and small, to engage in organized advocacy to influence policy. Systemic change is possible only if there are public investments in agriculture’s climate solutions that are accessible, just, multi-beneficial, and support the business of farming.

Most of actionable items offered in the movie are primarily relevant to those who control wide swaths of soil or live in a city with composting haul service and/or processing infrastructure or can compost on their own. The movie suggests that consumers can make more conscious choices to eat food that is regeneratively produced, but in fact they typically have insufficient information to do so.  And none of these solutions will address our climate crisis at the speed and scale we need. Only policy and significant public and private investments in nature-based solutions can do that.

Governor Newsom yesterday took an important step in this direction. He announced an executive order to elevate the importance of stewardship of our lands to secure our future. CalCAN welcomes the Governor’s focus on climate solutions for agriculture and our natural resources at large. We cannot address the state’s profound wildfire risks without addressing the conservation and management of our forests, grasslands, and farmlands. Nor can we address our pandemic-induced recession without addressing the resilience of California’s food and farming systems.

We have the opportunity with this work to provide the resources needed for the most vulnerable among us to address climate resilience and economic recovery. We look forward to working with the Governor and his administration to identify funding to scale up this work in ways that support the viability of farmers, our communities, and our environment.

So what actions can you take? You can vote for candidates who are serious about climate policy and understand agriculture’s powerful solutions. The solutions exist and have existed for a long time. We just need to put our money where our mouth is.

A version of this originally appeared in CalCAN’s blog, and is reprinted with permission.

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  1. Thursday, October 8th, 2020
    We hope this becomes required post-film reading. Silver bullets are easier to sell than use. Great that "Kiss the Ground" is reaching entirely new audiences with the healthy soil message. But without understanding
    and reforming the systems in which farmers make decisions–which is admittedly less entertaining than dancing microbes–we won't achieve the change we all want to see. Thanks, CalCAN!
  2. Cindy Cotter
    Tuesday, October 13th, 2020
    I trained with Kiss the Ground (the nonprofit behind the movie) as well as watching the doc itself. As a non-farming, suburban-located consumer looking for ways to use what I learned, I quickly realized how challenging it would be to make change happen. Some day I'm gonna write a blog post called "What Do I Do with Half a Pig?" describing the difficulty of buying meat direct from the farm. But I used that as a starting point to learn more -- about regenerative agriculture, about local farms, about meat processing, about food policy. I don't see any way Kiss the Ground (the movie) could have dealt with all those complexities and still reach the audience it was aimed at. If it inspires some of us to keep going and learn more, then it will have been a success. I think it was great!
  3. Stephen
    Wednesday, October 14th, 2020
    First many of the issues you mentioned in the first part of this critique were addressed in the book, Kiss the Ground, that was released over two years ago. A book allows for a more in depth discussion that's inappropriate for a film format especially one that is trying to appeal to a mass large audience. So pick up a copy of the book and read it.

    Second, many of the farmers, like Gabe Brown, who are leading the soil health movement are in red states...not California, which has been far behind in the soil health movement. Soil health in California is atrocious and one of the root causes of this state's drought like conditions. Climate is also changed by land management. All the tillage, bare fallows, chemical burn downs, mono-cropping, applied fertilizers, etc all further reduce the carbon in the soil, and thus the capacity of the soil to retain water. Soil carbon improved soil structure, and thus infiltration rates and water retention.

    Now the biggest motivator that Gabe and Ray and others have been using to get farmers to transition to their 6 principles (they added context) is that regenerative farming this way is MORE profitable. Why? They drastically cut input costs (for seeds &chemicals) and stack enterprises. So this isn't motivated by government programs. Actually the thing that's the biggest impediment to more farmers switching to these practices is federal crop insurance. This insurance micro-manages farmers and rewards a lot of bad soil management practices.

    Note too that soil organic matter is primarily built through root exudates from a diverse poly-crop pumping these sugars into the soil to feed microbes that poop and die. This necromass is the primary source of new soil organic matter....not decomposition of added compost. California's health soils initiative of trucking compose around the state and paying $1500 to $2000 acres to apply it ...is one of the dumbest programs I've witnessed especially since none of the compost or the soils that the compost are being applied to are tested for their microbiology. Thus here too expecting top down government programs to be some sort of salvation or panacea is just being fool hardy.