'Kiss the Ground' Shows How Soil Health Can Save Us From Climate Crisis

The documentary reveals that regenerative agriculture can slash – and reverse! – carbon emissions.

difference between agricultural fields

Iryna Imago / Getty Images 

A new climate documentary has hit Netflix, and it's well worth a watch for anyone feeling anxious about how to tackle the climate crisis. "Kiss the Ground" is a fast-paced, big-budget film that's been seven years in the making. It is narrated by Woody Harrelson and features a star-studded lineup of environmentally-concerned celebrities, including Gisele Bundchen and husband Tom Brady, singer Jason Mraz, and actors Ian Somerhalder and Patricia Arquette. 

"Kiss the Ground" is based on the fact that modern industrial agriculture is devastating our planet. Tilling loosens the soil, disturbing microorganisms that live within it, drying it out so that it does not retain as much moisture and can blow away, and releasing carbon into the atmosphere. 

The poorer the quality of the soil, the more chemical inputs are required to help crops grow – and this is a vicious cycle that only gets worse as time goes by. It takes more nitrogen to grow a bushel of grain now than it did in 1960, when post-wartime chemicals were first used in the United States as agricultural fertilizers. 

These damaging farming practices, which are driven in the U.S. by government subsidies that encourage farmers to grow vast monocrops, are causing vast swaths of the Earth to desertify rapidly. This has a devastating effect on human populations, as anyone knowledgeable about the Dust Bowl can predict. Even nowadays, 40 million people are pushed off their land annually due to the deterioration of soil. By 2050, one billion people will likely be refugees caused by soil desertification – and this comes with many risks:

"Poor land leads to poor people. Poor people leads to social breakdown. Poor land leads to increasing frequency of floods and droughts, mass immigration across borders and into cities, and it's leading to ideal recruitment conditions [for terrorism]."

The film points out that numerous past civilizations have collapsed because their agriculture models damaged the environment and communities couldn't handle both rising populations and deteriorating conditions. With the United Nations predicting that the world's remaining topsoil will be fully eroded in 60 years, the clock is ticking for us to reverse this problem that could be the difference between current civilization continuing or not. We have sixty harvests left.

Kiss the Ground promo image
Kiss the Ground movie (promo image) 

What's the Solution?

It sounds shockingly simple. Regenerative agriculture – the practice of farming in such a way that reflects natural processes, builds up soil health, sequesters carbon in the ground, and restores degraded land – is presented as an almost silver-bullet solution to the current climate crisis.

In fact, not only could regenerative practices stop the degradation of soil and reduce carbon emissions, but it could reverse the effects of the climate crisis, drawing down existing carbon from the atmosphere (our "legacy load" of 1,000 billion tonnes that's been emitted since 1750) and holding it in the soil. Plants are powerful devices in this fight, and if they can be allowed to populate the bare, exposed lands around the globe, they could start that revolutionary work.

Is it really that simple? In a recent interview, Civil Eats asked filmmaker Josh Tickell (who co-produced the film with wife Rebecca Tickell) if the impact of regenerative agriculture was being oversold. He replied that, although scientists offer different numbers on the predicted efficacy of plants to sequester carbon, it would be foolish not to move forward with a solution that has so much potential.

"Other researchers we spoke to think even more sequestration is possible [than Dr. Rattan Lal's calculation that plants and soil could sequester up to 330 gigatons of carbon]. 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."

The film uses juxtaposed images to show how regenerative agriculture has successfully transformed landscapes. It compares a North Dakota rancher's lush and diverse lands to his neighbor's bare, windswept fields. It shows how the Loess Plateau in China went from being a poverty-stricken desert to a reforested locus of food production, and how a desertified region of Zimbabwe underwent a similar transformation. It compares grassy pastures inhabited by grazing cattle to the cramped feedlots where cattle are fed grain grown elsewhere. It's not hard to see how disconnected our plant and meat production have become – and how they could benefit if they were once again allowed to operate symbiotically. 

"Kiss the Ground" ends on a hopeful note, describing various solutions that are currently being implemented to promote regenerative agriculture, including San Francisco's impressive composting system, a Farmland Program that aims to train 5,000 farmers in regenerative practices by 2025 with mentorship, financial assistance, and soil testing, and a Stewardship Program that sends regenerative farming educators throughout the country to teach others about these practices. There are many farmers profiled in the film who model these practices to great success and will hopefully inspire others to follow suit.

While there's less information provided in the film about what an ordinary citizen can do, I left feeling relieved that I support a local organic CSA (community supported agriculture) program that embraces regenerative practices and provides most of my family's vegetables. The film's resource webpage encourages viewers to choose grass-fed meat (if they eat it), to start composting, to buy natural fiber clothing, and – always – to be an advocate for soil health whenever possible. Find more tips on how to eat in a way that supports regenerative agriculture here.

You can watch "Kiss the Ground" on Netflix now.