Letter: ‘Symphony of soil’ leaves some unmoved (March 26)

Deborah Koons Garcia’s screening of her work-inprogress movie “Symphony of the Soil” at California State University Fresno Thursday night, and the debate that followed the movie are creating a buzz in the Central California Valley today.

The gorgeous movie made a powerful argument for soil conservation, by methodically illustrating the many ways in which soil was created, how it evolved and how soils interact with plant life, how they both give and receive from each other, how they “dance together”.

We were introduced to soil taxonomy, with illustrations of each major soil category: Alfisols, Andisols,Aridisols, Entisols, Gelisols, Histosols, Inceptisols, Mollisols, Oxisols, Spodosols, Ultisols and Vertisol.

This beautifully crafted movie also featured many scientists and farmers who showed how erosion and farming can be easily related and how water conservation is directly affected by farming
practices. In a stunning experiment featuring four samples ranging from conventional farming to no-till organic farming soils, Koons
Garcia showed how water washes minerals away on conventionally farmed soil, itself unable to hold on to any of its water, and how virtually none of the minerals and organic matter is disturbed by the rainwater, itself trapped by the organically farmed no-til soil. In fact, most of the water in the last sample stayed within the soil and the very small excess was clear water.

The experiment demonstrated how our water table is directly affected by the farming above ground.

The movie painted easy-to-make connections, and also offered serious and promising solutions, as the film featured farmers who had successfully reversed poor soil management into highly productive farms from India, Washington, the Midwest and Wales, all within very few years, with clearly visible improvements, even within the first year.

After the movie, a panel of speakers from various professions directly involved with soils: Paul Betancourt, farmer and past president, Fresno County Farm Bureau; Don Cameron, organic
and conventional farmer; Kerry Arroues, soil scientist, USDANRCS; Nat Dellavalle, agronomist and soil scientist, Dellavalle Laboratory, Inc.; and Rob Mikkelsen, western director, International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) all shared their opinions on the movie and, as the panel discussion progressed, increasingly indicated their fundamental displeasure with many of the arguments articulated in the Symphony of the Soil.

Most of the “counter” arguments did not actually address the science from the movie; instead, the speakers claimed that the market requirements, their legal intricacies and the extensive nature of California Central Valley farming could not apply the remedies announced in the movie, because of scalability isssues. In other words, the bulk of the panel, failed to realize that the
very industry they drive is itself unsustainable, the market demands they, themselves, created and the governmental food and
agricultural policies which govern their practices, are inherently unsustainable and potentially devastating to our land resources
as they could eventually lead to rampant food insecurity in a
country unusually blessed with some of the most fertile soils on
the planet.

One of the speakers even boasted the conclusion that organic farming actually recycles industrially created nitrogen, in a laughable attempt to dismiss organic farming altogether. Although a century of Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis has indeed created a large supply of fixed nitrogen, some of which inevitably is recycled in organic farming, the comment was meant to deride the importance of organic farming, specifically in comparing the nitrogen content of compost compared to purely synthesized
industrial fertilizers. One could counter that the recycling of nitrogen going on in organic farming, in itself, is an argument in favor of the practice, as opposed to the loss of nitrogen that accompanies the incessant chemical washing of the soil that occurs in poorly managed conventional farms.

As I watched members of the crowd, slowly exiting the room
during the one-sided debate, my wife observed them meeting outside of the auditorium, discussing the movie and how the panel had failed to understand what seemed so obvious to the large audience that filled the Fresno State auditorium. Guests were commenting that we have a lot of work to do: powerful agribusiness is still blind to its practices’ devastating effects on our planet and clearly not ready to face the consequences of the destructive pattern of their poor soil management, so eloquently and powerfully illustrated in the movie before them.

At one point during the debate, a conventional farmer stood up
and told the panel and the large audience that although her farm had been in her family for generations, she had never made the connection between the aquifer and farming practices. She
looked as if she had had an epiphany and was clearly moved by what she had seen and understood on the screen. The panel’s eyes may have been opened as they watched the movie, but their minds seemed to have been closed shut the whole evening.

Fredo Martin,

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