Every child who grows up in the United States learns about our first Thanksgiving when families celebrated a long-awaited year of bountiful food.

Children cut out construction paper turkeys, and we all look forward to the big meal. But there have been drastic
changes in this country — not only in the type of food most people eat, but also in the agricultural practices that have moved further and further from the wisdom of our ancestor farmers. The infamous “dust bowl” of the last century was the result of reckless practices, but today’s massive farms are also damaging the Earth’s “skin” — the few inches of soil that grow the food we need to live.

Happily, these problems have solutions, many of which are found in the award-winning film, Dirt, from James
Colquhoun and Laurentine ten Bosch, producers of Food Matters and Hungry for Change.

If you dig down into the soil in  some areas of South America, you will see that the top portion is very dark, almost black. Ancient civilizations added charcoal to the soil, dramatically increasing the productivity of their crops. This practice, dating back thousands of years, has recently been rediscovered and offers a remarkable
solution to some of the problems we face today, including depleted soil and greenhouse gases. Called “biochar,” it is made by slowly burning plant materials at very high temperature without much oxygen. This produces fuel to run the system, and the final product is charcoal, but in a form very different from what is used in outdoor grills.

Unlike briquettes, this type of charcoal has a honeycomb appearance with an enormous amount of surface area and openings that can retain nutrients and water. It also restores carbon to the soil, yielding huge benefits.  Adding biochar to soil is far more effective than composting.

Cleaning the air

Both the use of fossil fuels and the reduction of forests have overloaded the Earth’s atmosphere with carbon
dioxide, leading to global warming. Soil contains more carbon than all vegetation and the atmosphere combined.
Biochar reduces greenhouse gases by trapping CO2, thus keeping it out of the atmosphere while enriching plants. It also reduces the emission of nitrous oxide, which is even more damaging than CO2.

Reversing soil depletion

A surprising solution is being used by farmers and ranchers; they are restoring the vitality of the land by allowing it to revert to the prairie grasses that were once native to many areas. Then, they use the land to graze large herds of livestock, in a way similar to the herds of buffalo that once covered the region. The land and the animals work in harmony with each other. A typical operation places cattle in a small grazing area (confined by electrified
wiring). The animals eat all of the vegetation, not just the favored plants. Then, they are moved to another section, leaving behind manure to help fertilize the cropped grasses, giving them time to regrow.

The technique is being used successfully on a large scale, on mid-sized farms and even on very small farms. This approach is described in the book Cows Save the Planet.