The Lessons from Soil Health
Updated: Oct 17
"It’s not about avoiding disturbance (a little bit of disturbance does help build resiliency), it’s about avoiding consistent, severe, and repeating events." - Emily Holleran
Emily is a Sustainability Consultant and University Instructor focusing on soil health and its role in sustainable food systems. She holds a graduate degree in Sustainability from Harvard University's Extension School, and a graduate certificate in local food systems. Currently, Emily instructs online and is collaborating with several U.S. State governments to develop community-driven programs centered around soil health, working lands, and natural climate solutions. She has advised for various organizations within regional food systems, trained as a soil food web lab technician, and served as the Vice-chair of a local food policy network. Prior to her graduate work, she worked at Accenture as a Supply Chain Management Consultant for nine years, establishing a solid foundation for her current pursuits.
1. What 3 books would you recommend for a person, like me with no prior knowledge, wanting to understand the broad principles of sustainable food systems and soil health?
Basically, all of David Montgomery’s books, but the three below are in order of recommendation. Although the science isn’t yet irrefutable around many soil health conclusions, he and Anne Biklé do an excellent job of reviewing the available literature, connecting themes, acknowledging gaps, but also balancing scientific findings with anecdotal evidence. And, they always provide extensive bibliographies, which a skeptic (such as myself) always appreciates
2. Have you noticed that some principles can be applied from one field to another? What principles from soil health can be applied to other fields?
The principles I like to rely on are from the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) in the US. They are:
Maximize the Presence of Living Roots
Maximize Soil Cover
(And if possible/appropriate) Integrate Livestock
There are definitely themes here that apply and may be helpful for life in the general sense. I am not an expert, but I believe psychologists encourage establishing oneself within their community. i.e. Make connections and have a group of people you can rely on.
In the plant/soil world, healthy root microbiomes ‘listen’ to the plant's needs and bring back what the plant is lacking. The more extensive the root network, the more space it covers, the more likely it will be able to find the missing nutrient/component (in the quantity needed), and bring it back to the plant. In social networks, having people you can rely on in a time of need is akin to these root microbiomes. In a literal sense, bringing prepared meals to a friend after the death of a loved one is the perfect example, but I think there are more subtle examples within our daily lives that apply here.
The power of stability - whether it's financial, emotional, or physical - can not be understated. Stability can reduce stress and anxiety, which then leads to a host of related health benefits in humans. In the soil world, disturbance (i.e., tilling) destroys underground networks and limits the full potential of a healthy root microbiome, which can result in stressed and less productive plants. It’s not about avoiding disturbance (a little bit of disturbance does help build resiliency), it’s about avoiding consistent, severe, and repeating events. For example, imagine a hurricane comes through and destroys your house, insurance provides the funds to rebuild, which you do, just for another hurricane to come through and destroy it again. Eventually, you’d likely give up and move away deeming that the area is just simply no longer habitable. This is what tilling does to the ground in an agricultural setting.
Within humanity, I see connections between “maximize biodiversity” and maximizing diversity in the general sense. The benefits of biodiversity environmentally are well documented, and the benefits of diversity can be seen in all facets of human life as well. Diversity enables innovation and creativity, reduces groupthink, leads to better decision-making, and enables globalization, cultural understanding, and empathy.
Soil cover essentially provides an armor for the soil. The parallels between soil cover and protecting oneself in the general sense are somewhat obvious!
3. What small things make a big difference for soil health?
Literally, do nothing in your yard. Let the wildness take over. Or, even better, throw local wildflower or pollinator-friendly seeds around. As long as the varieties are suitable for your location and climate, not much else needs to be accounted for as these seeds will take root. Unfortunately, many Home Owner Associations (in the US anyway) will not allow this, and for those inclined towards advocacy, I’d instead suggest focusing on your local farming community. Get to know your local farmers. Ask them about their soil health practices; make it known that it’s an important consideration for you when buying food. Get to know your local politicians and the key players/organizations and again, make your desires known.
4. What is the biggest misconception or the biggest mistake that people make when trying to buy sustainable food?
One of the biggest misconceptions is assuming that certain labels or marketing claims automatically guarantee a product's sustainability. While labels like "organic," "natural," or "non-GMO" can provide some insights into a product's production methods, they don't cover the full spectrum of sustainability. Some products with these labels might still have negative environmental or social impacts, and some sustainable practices might not be fully captured by these labels. In fact, most of the soil health principles are NOT captured by these labels.
5. Which gadget or tool has the biggest bang for the buck towards sustainable food systems either within your life or for your job?
Hands down - a kitchen compost bin or composting system. A compost bin serves as a tangible reminder of the interconnectedness of our food choices, waste, and the health of our environment. It’s a relatively low-cost investment that is easy to implement in most living situations (i.e., apartments, condos, houses). And the benefits are far-reaching for sustainable living, both within your personal life and as part of broader efforts to build more resilient and eco-friendly food systems.