Film Reveals How Industrial Agriculture Destroys Soil

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“The Need to Grow” highlights the shocking damage industrial agriculture is doing to our soil. The documentary, produced by Earth Conscious Films, follows three people who are fighting for change in our food system.

They include a 6-year-old activist petitioning Girl Scouts to get genetically modified ingredients out of its cookies; a farmer, biochemist and chef who is fighting to keep his land for regenerative urban farming; and an inventor from Montana who developed a Green Power House to accelerate the regeneration of soil using biochar.

The film starts out revealing some devastating facts about soil, including that 70% of our planet’s soil has already been destroyed. And because nature takes an estimated 1,000 years to generate just 3 centimeters of topsoil, if this rate of soil degradation continues, Earth could run out of farmable soil in 60 years.1

These facts are worrisome. But they serve as an important wakeup call that immediate action must be taken to save our soil. Fortunately, as shown in the film, there are fast and effective solutions to regenerate our soil. But before we explore those solutions, let’s first look at the root of the problem.

In the U.S., we’re losing soil at 10 times the rate of which it takes to regenerate it. The main driver is industrial agriculture, which relies heavily on synthetic inputs and machinery that tills up the soil. The practice of tilling affects the soils’ ability to hold water. It also turns soil carbon into atmospheric carbon dioxide, heating up the atmosphere, which in turn fuels the climate crisis.

It All Boils Down to the Soil

Tilling and applying agrichemicals disrupts fragile soil microbes. A single teaspoon of healthy soil can host billions of microorganisms.2 Tens of thousands of different living species, such as bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects and earthworms, create a complex, interconnected web that affects not only the soil but also the health of all living creatures and the food chain as a whole.

These intricate networks act like a fast underground internet, transporting nutrients, water and carbon, creating a stable structure that prevents erosion and permits plants and other lifeforms to thrive. In short, soil microbes make life possible. As Paul Stamets, mycologist and author of “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World,” says in the film:

“We are here today because of very smart choices on the evolutionary path. And we are born from the soil that gives us life. All of our food comes from soil. So, when we begin to destroy the biology of the soil we destroy the food networks that give us life. This is where we face an unprecedented circumstance.”

The Difference Between Soil and Dirt

Over the last century, farmers around the world have been encouraged to rely on unsustainable inputs, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which have resulted in short-term boosts in production, but at a major cost to soil longevity.

Large-scale monocropping and repeated tilling have resulted in the loss of topsoil rich in biodiversity, leaving behind dead dirt. This soil degradation has accelerated erosion, allowing a lifetime of topsoil to turn to dust and be blown or washed away.

This leads to a host of other problems, including food scarcity, as crops become less resilient to extreme weather conditions such as flooding and drought. As noted in the film, the difference between life and death, abundance and extinction, is the difference between soil and dirt.

The rise of industrial agriculture is tied to the military industrial complex, Jeffrey Smith, author of “Seeds of Deception,” explains in the film. After World War II, there was an excess of bomb-making material that was turned into pesticides. As the military industrial complex moved into agriculture, a model of chemical dependency was born. It’s a model environmental activist Vandana Shiva describes in the film as a war against our planet:

“Industrial agriculture, in my point of view, is first and foremost a war against the Earth because it is a war against all species, since you are bringing more chemicals into food production. And all they are doing is killing.”

Industrial Agriculture Linked to Ocean Dead Zones

Today, about 44 billion pounds of chemical fertilizers are used each year, according to the film. The impacts of these synthetic fertilizers reach far and wide. They disrupt the soil’s microbial balance and harm beneficial fungus and organic matter.

As biodiversity decreases, more fertilizers are needed to maintain outputs. Without nature there to do its job, agrichemicals must be used to fight off weeds and bugs. David King, founder of Seed Library of Los Angeles, put it best in the film when he said, “The idea that you can fight nature is dead upon arrival.”

The problems with synthetic fertilizers don’t stop on the field. Up to 50% of nitrogen fertilizers are washed away with rain and irrigation water, causing a huge amount of pollution that’s resulted in an ocean dead zone the size of New Jersey.

A dead zone in the ocean lacks oxygen and can kill fish and other marine life. The New Jersey-size dead zone is the largest ever measured since scientists began mapping ocean dead zones in 1985.3

Factory farms or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) — which are easily the most polluting activity on the planet — are a second major contributor to ocean dead zones.

In August 2017, a report by the environmental group Mighty blamed toxins from factory farm manure and chemical fertilizers for causing the largest dead zone ever recorded. The Guardian reports:4

“Nutrients flowing into streams, rivers and the ocean from agriculture and wastewater stimulate an overgrowth of algae, which then decomposes. This results in hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, in the water, causing marine life either to flee or to die.”

Roundup Weedkiller at Center of 42,700 Cancer Lawsuits

Sadly, vast amounts of resources are used to fuel industrial agriculture and factory farming. In the U.S., more than 33% of fossil fuels, 50% of all water and 80% of farmland is used to raise animals that are confined in factory farms and to grow the grain to feed them, according to the film.

Most of the grains are genetically modified, 80% of which are engineered to withstand Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller. Roundup has been linked to a host of health problems, including liver and kidney damage, Parkinson’s, infertility and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. More than 42,700 plaintiffs in the U.S. have filed suit against Bayer (Monsanto’s new owner), claiming Roundup caused their cancer.5

The use of glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, has risen 10,000% since 1974, according to the film. The chemical is now found in our food, air and rainwater. Still, U.S. regulatory authorities do not require food to be tested for glyphosate contamination.

Big Agriculture’s philosophy of using GMOs and glyphosate is one of sterilization: Kill everything except the crop. This is the exact opposite of farming in ways that regenerate soil and biodiversity.

The Green Power House

The film features Erik Cutter, a biochemist and oncologist by training who became a chef, farmer and pioneer of urban regenerative agriculture. Cutter uses a tool called the SoxxBoxx Gro System,6 an elevated tray containing rows of polypropylene socks filled with healthy soil.

The SoxxBoxx system sequesters carbon and blends organic, aeroponic and hydroponic practices. The results are plants high in nutrients that don’t require pesticides.

The film shows Cutter being introduced to a natural fertilizer that, to his amazement, caused his plant to change colors within 45 minutes of applying it. The material turned out to be biochar. It was produced by Michael Smith, inventor of the Green Power Plant. Fascinated and eager to learn more, Cutter hopped on an airplane and flew to Montana to meet Smith.

Smith is a mathematician, physicist and former software engineer. His background is diverse and includes working in the field of artificial intelligence for a variety of companies such as Walt Disney Studios, NASA and the FBI. Smith was one of the first pioneers in 3D printing, long before 3D printers were known as they are today.

He took his expertise in artificial intelligence and began to apply it to biology. In 2009, he co-founded Algae Aqua-Culture Technologies Inc., which designed the Green Power House.7 The power house operates on a system powered by sunlight and industrial waste, diverting that waste from landfills and producing electricity while accelerating the regeneration of soil.

The power house uses something they call the dragon, a state-of-the-art pyrolysis machine. When biomass such as wood chips enter the dragon, it’s heated close to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The absence of oxygen prevents combustion, leaving behind a stable carbon structure similar to charcoal.

The extracted energy runs the entire power house off-grid, while creating enough excess electricity to meet the needs of about 100 homes. It would take more than 3 acres of solar panels to accomplish this, notes the film.


The electricity is not their main product, though. It’s their “waste” byproduct. Pretty incredible, right? The main product is biochar, which is emerging as one of the best solutions to environmental pollution.

The process of making biochar has been around for about 9,000 years. Our ancestors created biochar to revitalize the soil. Algae Aqua-Culture did not invent the process of making biochar, they simply reformulated it for the 21st century.

As explained in the film, biochar is a form of extremely stable carbon with pores that create a massive surface area in a tiny space. Think of it like this: A 2-inch piece of biochar, if unfolded, would have the surface area the size of a football field. This structure is an optimal breeding ground for beneficial soil microbes, holding water and nutrients where plant roots need them the most.

Without the dragon, the wood waste would end up in the landfill, releasing greenhouse gases as it decomposed. Instead, biochar locks the carbon back underground for hundreds or even thousands of years. The technology is aimed at both regenerating the soil and reducing the carbon footprint of polluting industries like timber and coal, while providing cleaner, low-carbon energy alternatives.8

Remarkably, one green power house is able to stabilize more than 1 ton of carbon every day. It would take about 50,000 trees to do the same, according to the film.

Smith is using the Green Power House to fix carbon, pulling it out of the atmosphere and putting it back in the ground where it can do the most good. Smith and his team essentially copied nature’s way of producing soil — taking carbon dioxide, water and sunlight and creating biomass from it. They just found a way to accelerate the process.

The Liquid Prairie

The film takes Cutter on a tour through what Smith and his team refer to as the “Liquid Prairie.” Using continuously fed carbon dioxide from the dragon, rapidly growing algae is harvested every day. Through biodigestion, algae are converted to a nutrient-rich organic fertilizer that when combined with biochar, creates a powerful soil rejuvenator.

Methane, a byproduct of algae digestion, is sent back to the dragon, which heats and processes more waste, completing the cycle. Most people don’t know it, but algae are higher in energy than coal, Smith tells Cutter in the film. Through the whole process, Smith is doing in four or five days what nature would do in 400 years.

Save the Soil

Solutions such as the Green Power Plant are key in building healthy soil and transforming our broken food and farming system. The good news is there are many steps all of us can take to help shift our death-based agriculture system to a life-based economy.

We can’t feed the world from dead soil. But we can provide nutritious food on a global scale without destroying the planet. All we need are many small solutions that lead to a societal shift.

Actions such as shopping organic, supporting local regenerative farms, growing your own food, composting, seed-saving or starting a garden at your or your child’s school can help restore soil health and the biodiversity that depend on it.

As the film notes, the future of our food system is in our hands. Agriculture can either destroy the planet or it can be a vessel to regenerate our soils, restore ecosystems and create true food security. But we must act now. The actions we take in the next few years will have environmental effects lasting for generations.

As Shiva says in the film, “In life, the phrase ‘it’s too late’ doesn’t work. Life is about renewal. Life is about healing. Life is about bursting forth again and again and again.” Click here to find local farms in your area selling regenerative products.

About the Director

from left to right: Rob Herring, Rosario Dawson, and Ryan Wirick
from left to right: Rob Herring,
Rosario Dawson, and Ryan Wirick

I believe in bringing quality to my readers, which is why I wanted to share some information about the filmmakers, Rob Herring and Ryan Wirick, from “The Need to GROW.” Here is a little more about them and what went in to making this film. Thank you, Rob and Ryan, for sharing with us.

What was your inspiration for making this film?

The U.N. report “Wake Up Before It’s Too Late” recently stated that localizing and diversifying the food supply and increasing small organic farms was the key to fixing our food system, rather than relying on chemical-dependent, soil-eroding, nutrient-lacking GMO monocultures. It seemed so obvious. Meanwhile, Time magazine estimated that at our current rate of soil degradation, we only have roughly 60 years of farmable topsoil left on the planet.

We knew the public didn’t need another doomsday film insinuating it was too late to save our species. It’s not. So, we set out looking for the untold stories of revolutionary people who are already creating the new food system, in harmony with nature.

As we began interviewing experts, it quickly became apparent how important soil health is to the future of the planet. Soil isn’t sexy, so it’s often overlooked as being nothing more than dirt. This couldn’t be further from the truth — there are more micro-organisms in a healthy tablespoon of soil than there are people on the planet!

Healthy soil regulates not just the nutrients in a healthy food system, but healthy water, air, biodiversity and the ability to return atmospheric carbon pollution back into the Earth. Like nothing else, the act of healing our soils truly addresses almost every other environmental issue — including climate change!

The film follows a mother and daughter activist, a renegade urban farmer and an accomplished visionary inventor revolutionizing soil restoration.

It was important to us for these characters’ personal journeys to serve as a vehicle through which we could weave in myriad action steps on all scales. Audiences leave feeling hopeful and knowing exactly what solution they can participate in immediately — regardless of who they are or where they live.

Shot over nearly five years, “The Need To GROW” is ultimately a story of underdog resilience. Each character overcomes a major setback, bringing viewers on a ride to not only learn about the astonishing issue of soil health — and the urgent problems of our food system overall — but to connect with characters who offer an inspiring example of what can be accomplished with perseverance and heart.

What was your favorite part of making the film?

We forged lifelong friendships, not only with the stars of the film, but with countless solutionists around the country whom we met while traveling and looking for the most cutting-edge solutions. What we saw was there are a lot of incredible people out there working hard to heal this planet and our relationship to it. It is more than hopeful — we found that we already have most of the answers to turn around our environmental destructive habits.

When the time comes that the public and governments are ready to listen, the answers will be ready to deploy, as proven by those who are already participating in the future food system.

What gives us the most pride is seeing the new friendships that exist between people we helped connect through this process. Seeing inspiring leaders interact and work together now — and knowing our film is the reason for their relationship — makes us happier than anything.

Where do the proceeds from your film go?

All proceeds of “The Need to GROW” go toward raising awareness of the importance of soil regeneration and increasing the accessibility of solutions to heal both people and planet.

Our new platform, Earth Conscious Life, was created to accentuate how there are no dividing lines between planetary health and human health — the pursuit of a healthy planet, society, family and home are one and the same. Our mission is to make these connections indispensable for people through community and art focused on holistic solutions.

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