Kiss the Ground (2020) ★★★
Writer & Directors: Joshua and Rebecca Tickell
Streaming on Netflix September 22
“We have 60 harvests left.” That’s one of many sobering quotes in Kiss The Ground, a new documentary about soil regeneration and the toxic legacy of industrial farming. Those 60 harvests refers to the U.N.’s forecast that that world’s topsoil will be gone in sixty years, and a vast majority of the Earth’s land will be a desert or in the process of becoming one. And yet, despite these horrific predictions, I didn’t feel depressed after watching this documentary. In fact, it left me feeling cautiously hopeful about the possibility of healing the planet — a rare occurrence for me, and I think for anyone who engages with the science of climate change.
Narrated by Woody Harrelson, this is a straightforwardly educational film about carbon sequestration and how we might offset our warming atmosphere by restoring our soil. Most people are aware that trees and plants absorb carbon, but what is less universally understood is the role that soil plays in this process. When a plant draws carbon out of the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis, it stores much of the carbon in the soil, an underland that is host to a universe of living things, including insects, fungi, and microbes. Healthy soil will store at least 40% of the plant’s carbon drawdown, and it will keep it there, even when the plant has been harvested or consumed by grazing animals. Unfortunately, our country’s topsoil has been destroyed by decades of industrial agriculture. Pesticides, single-crop plantings, and farm equipment that aggressively till the land have destroyed biodioversity. The topsoil is eroding and the land is losing its fertility. Desertification is already beginning to take place in some parts of the country.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the earth can bounce back if farmers practice regenerative agriculture, which is basically farming that works with the local ecosystem instead of trying to control it. Regenerative farmers grow a variety of crops instead of covering endless acres with corn or soybeans. They rotate cover crops to protect and nourish the soil, and if they raise livestock, they graze them strategically, slowly moving them across acreage so that the animals don’t overgraze one particular area. This method of farming requires patience, but it is ultimately more reliable and financially lucrative than industrial agriculture. The problem is that the U.S. government incentivizes industrial farming. Until that changes, it seems unlikely that American farmers will embrace alternative methods.
How you experience a documentary like Kiss The Ground will depend on how much you know about climate science. I’ve spent the past couple of years obsessively reading about fungal mycelial networks, so it wasn’t news to me the soil and all it contains is an amazing natural resource. But, if you haven’t thought about biology much since high school, or if you’re not quite sure how the atmosphere is warming, Kiss The Ground does a good job of reviewing the carbon cycle, the water cycle, photosynthesis, and other biological processes. The science is explained by a mix of experts, farmers and ranchers working in the field, and celebrities whose charitable work has given them some knowledge — I guess? As charming as Patricia Arquette is, I could have done without her explaining composting toilets, or Gisele Bundchen and Tom Brady discussing their vegan diet. I would have preferred to hear more from Paul Hawken, the editor of the book Drawdown, or seen more original reporting about a greater variety of farming subjects.
There were times when Kiss The Ground seemed to take on too much and verged on superficial. Discussions about vegan diets and organic eating felt tacked-on and obvious. There was a potted history of the Dust Bowl and the rise of industrial farming after World War II that gave context to the devastation of the soil but also seemed curiously apolitical. There was hardly any mention of the corporations that consistently chose profit over human health and the lawmakers that accommodated corporate interests. There was only a passing reference to the decimation of Native Americans, and how that genocide and loss of knowledge contributed to the degradation of the land. Finally, there was no discussion of the ways that corporations have actively tried to suppress the reality of climate change, and how one political party in particular has embraced denial and slashed government regulation of soil, water, and agriculture.
But the timidity of Kiss The Ground may be its strength, because we’re living in a country that is completely polarized when it comes to talking about the climate crisis. This documentary is not trying to alienate or shame anyone, and it’s not telling you how to vote. Because it is not focused on cutting carbon emissions, there is no message of giving things up. Instead the focus is on abundance — the richness of soil, the diversity of our plant and animal species, and the intricate web of life. It manages to strike a positive note while also telling the alarming truth about climate change, which is that we have to act immediately, and collaboratively.