Working the land for our climate - Healthy soil, healthy world | DW Documentary

 Working the land for our climate - Healthy soil, healthy world | DW Documentary

The earth beneath our feet is the very foundation of life. It provides us and countless other creatures with nourishment. Yet we're destroying it. We poison it, pour concrete over it, and exploit exploited. A third of all fertile soil worldwide is already lost. Building it back is a challenge for humanity. We have to think in terms of 30 to 40, maybe even 100 years, but the potential is massive as soil is our best hope for saving the planet. All the Co2 in the atmosphere could be captured in our soils. Even in the middle of the city, we can free up and restore soil. We don't have to seal all this ground and we should be conscientious, but can we learn to bring the ground back to life rather than just trampling on it? [music] Styria, the green heart of Austria. Josef Nagle is the tenth generation of farmers to till these fields. He's aware that his children will also have to live off this land, so he decided to radically transform the way he farms.

We used to just work with a plow, now this is my machine. His machine is a cultivator. The prongs only comb the surface of the earth. A plough on the other hand, penetrates deeper, bringing subsoil to the top and disturbing soil life.

Yosef Nagal has switched from conventional agriculture to humus farming. That means not only planting grain, rapeseed and turnips, but also building up humus. Humus farming gives the soil more than it takes and requires new techniques. The cultivator spares worms, bacteria and fungus. It works crop residues into the soil and thus provides food for them like in a compost heap. The microorganisms turn plant parts into valuable soil. In this sense, a humus farmer nourishes the soil rather than crops. Conventional agriculture is different. crops consume nutrients from the earth, Artificial fertilizer is added as needed [Music] and the soil is further damaged by regular ploughing, monocultures, and pesticides. [Music] This is also what Joseph Nagal was taught and how he used to farm. Until one day something happened which changed everything. It got me thinking and made me decide to change how was almost killed by a tree while doing forestry work. He was in hospital, severely injured for a long time and began to think about what he really wanted to leave his children. they would inherit dead soil if he continued to farm as he had been.

The farmer decided that if he survived his fields would get a new lease of life as well. He found help close to his farm where three local communities joined forces to form the ecological region of kind of in Austria. Their aim is to rebuild humus. Gerald Dunst is one of the pioneers. He and fellow campaigners share knowledge in the so-called Humus Academy that was not previously taught in agricultural colleges. Joseph Nagle and other farmers are learning how soil can be farmed to become more fertile by the year, and how earthworms are valuable team members. The earth wasn't created by God, but excreted by earthworms. With enough earthworms, stones disappear, They just get buried in rainworm feces. The most stable kind of humans. [Music] Gerald Dunst was one of the founders of the eco region, which has since been imitated all over Europe. People here say agriculture needs a radical shift in mindset. [Music] In the last decades, we mastered the art of extracting the maximum from the soil. Back then, we didn't know that the soil would get progressively weaker and that more and more humus would be lost. The problem experience is built on this system, which degrades soil and which worked for decades. [Music] A day at the Humus Academy begins with theory classes and gives farmers a chance to share experiences. Afternoons are spent out in the field where they can see, feel, and smell what makes for healthy and humus rich soil. [music] Mindloys in Southern Germany, a small town doing big things here too. The soil is to be revived.

This colossal building in the middle of town is the former spinning plant. The industrial ruin is the size of 20 football fields. Robert Bosch wants to change this. He's been mayor since 2016, but the politician from the Christian Social Union grew up here and recalls the time when the spinning factory was still in use.

I remember the smell. I worked here in my school holidays between the age of 15 to 17. my job was to clear these shafts of the fluff that had gathered during the year in its heyday, 3 000 people worked at the spinning plant. It went bankrupt during the economic crisis of 2008. since then, the old factory has been falling into disrepair and unnecessarily sealing the soil. But Mayor Robert Bosch and landscape architect Vienna Alkavitz have a plan. Alkavitz is a specialist in unsealing ground and reviving soil that was locked under concrete. He sees great potential, especially in smaller places like Mindloys. These places relied on industry back when it was growing. No one thought about the environment so large areas were concreted over. I think there's a big potential to actively change things like here. The will to change things in my Loys is strong. Many of the old factory halls as well as the concrete flooring are to be gotten rid of so that in just a few weeks rain can fall on the soil again.

Right? here is where we will first tear open the concrete. Then we will cultivate the soil beneath. On this spot, there will be a connecting path to the park. The rest will be a green area. We don't know what the ground is like under here because a building has stood on it for over 100 years. The plans for the town centre are represented by this model. The past can easily be lifted out and replaced with the future. The plan is to have apartments, gastronomy and offices partly in the old halls and plenty of green spaces. [Music] Here we have the park with the lake. The buildings have gone so the water can get back into the earth. The service water will have a positive effect on the microclimate and water will be able to drain again. [music] This means the new town centre will be able to better withstand climate change and the living soil will extract Co2 from the atmosphere. It's a concept that should attract public funding.

The idyllic beauty of this countryside is deceptive. Here in Ronaberg Turingia, the ground is still contaminated from the Gdr years when uranium was mined here, using rather reckless methods. To this day, the area poses a threat to human health and the environment. [Music] Microbiologist Erica Corter and geologist Torsten Schaefer want to eliminate that danger and revive the soil so that it's healthy or even useful again. They're spending a week on the site. [Music] Together with students and researchers from the University of Yena, they're investigating water, soil, and plants here.

What have 40 years of uranium mining done to the land?

In 1949, Europe's largest uranium reserves were found here. They were exploited for the Soviet Atomic Industry. Workers extracted the ore from the mine. unprotected acids were used in the uranium extraction, which released highly toxic heavy metals. Thousands of people died of lung diseases such as silicosis or of cancer. The toxic burden still weighs heavy today, but thanks to biology, even this contaminated soil could be made useful for cultivation again.

This takes The right bacteria, fungus, and plants working together. They can't remove the heavy metals, but they can capture them in mineral form or bind them to the roots. I want the heavy metals to stay in the earth not be washed out with the groundwater, so they have to be captured. Captured here means holding the toxins so that they can no longer get into the water, leaves, or wood. They effectively become immobile. The solution could help to remediate contaminated soil not only in the site, but in many places around the world.

This is here. This here is a test field. A small one, but the idea is transferable to the former uranium mine here and to all other former mining land, all areas impacted by mining where currently nothing is growing. Researchers cannot give a precise figure as to how much land area is affected, but we know that it's many thousands of square kilometers worldwide. Yet the growing demand for raw materials including for Lithium, Cobalt, and Nickel used in batteries and cell phones means more and more areas are becoming dangerous and unusable for agriculture.

Six months ago, the students put special bacteria into the earth. Now they want to know whether they have multiplied and started to capture the toxins. If there are a lot of microorganisms that are breathing, then there's a lot of activity in the soil. Then it's healthy soil. If there isn't much breathing going on, that's a sign that the conditions are poor, possibly due to the heavy metals and not many microorganisms.

While Erica Corta is investigating the development underground with the students, Torsten Schieffer checks out what has been happening overground from up in the air. The drone has special sensors to ascertain how the trees are growing. In the beginning, only older trees would grow here, but in the meantime, birch and willows can also be planted. The timber will later be sold to cover part of the remediation costs. Torsten Schieffer is more than happy with the development [Music] when I drive out to Horneborg. This here shows that landscapes can be given a new purpose and that we can give something back to society. [Music] We have to think in terms of 30 to 40, maybe even 100 years until we can leave this system to its own devices. Still, it's a chance not only for Ronaborg, but a solution which could revive lost ground worldwide [Music] Back in Austria, where the farmers in Styria are out in the [Music] the field. Practical lesson of the Humus Academy touching, crumbling, kneading, and feeling the soil. What we see here is exactly what we want. The soil is falling apart, it's loose and crumbly. This soil brings a range of benefits. Firstly, there is no erosion, Secondly, it is much easier to farm. it's just not as labor-intensive. And thirdly, there's a guaranteed harvest because the earth is much better at absorbing and storing the water. Humus rich soil can absorb up to 150 liters of water in one hour. As a comparison, 200 liters in two days led to the Ah Valley Flood Catastrophe in 2021.

But building up humus needs time and effort. It took us generations to deplete the humus so we can't expect everything to be repaired in one or two years. We need to understand that getting the soil back to good condition is a project for generations.

The most important rule is to always have something growing either crops or interim plants. That's not only good for battling erosion, it means mass growth through the root excretions. it's effectively a carbon pump from the air to the soil. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and store the carbon in the earth, which is good for the climate and for soil life.

The working day on the field is over, but not for Gerald Dunst. Humus is both his job and his vocation ever since he first experimented with compost in his grandmother's garden at the age of 13. today, the 63 year old makes soil to him.

The World Climate Report of 2007 was both a wake-up call and an opportunity. We were shocked that the climate could change so much and we said we have to do something. The idea was to make one region co2 neutral. The key is the right cultivation of the soil. [Music] Hummus consists of 58 carbon or the Co2 in our atmosphere could be captured in our soil. Soil is a giant storer of carbon, but only a fraction of its potential is used. It could absorb all the co2 emissions caused by humans. To reach this target, the carbon in the soil would have to rise annually by 0.4 percent. France's government is aiming for this with its 4 per 1000 initiative in 2015. Many nations, including Germany committed to this goal at the Cop Climate Summit in Paris, at least on paper. [Music] One problem is a lack of expertise and of funding as this transformation is costly in kind of. They didn't want to wait for subsidies [Music] so we searched for a way to fund our project. It only makes sense if many farmers join in to make a difference to climate change. They came up with a system in which anyone in kind of who builds up humus on their field gets a certificate. Every certified tonne of carbon in the soil is worth a cash premium. The system benefits both the climate and farmers [Music] in mindloys.

They also need money to re-nature the earth.

The community applied for funding from the Federal government for the demolition, redesign and renaturing of the former spinning factory. The local Bundestag member, Emit Soilner supported the application. After a long wait, she has news from Berlin in Bavaria.

I think around 15 communities have received the funding and I'm pleased that you are one of them. which is also thanks to your good concept.

I remember when Robert became Mayor here in Meinlois. This was one of the main projects he wanted to push, and it's a phenomenal project. At last. The diggers can get to work 14 hectares of this former industrial complex, an area twice as large as Berlin's Potsdamer Plots are to be broken up. The vegetated soil will not only offer a living space for plants and animals, it will be good for people too. It can cool the ground by up to eight degrees in summer, absorb heavy rain, and improve air quality, regaining ground in Mayan Lois.

Ever since Mayor Robert Bosch learned about the wide-reaching effects this can have, the project has been a top priority for him these days. He sees his hometown with fresh eyes spotting opportunity on every corner. With every measure big or small, I ask myself whether the soil needs to be sealed or whether concrete can be removed. When I look around now or onto the street, I see areas that could be unsealed. This mindset would be useful across Germany. Every day, 52 hectares, the equivalent of 72 football fields of earth gets buried under asphalt or concrete, even though the German government's climate protection plan set the maximum to 30 hectares.

Robert Bosch's latest project is an area which had been earmarked for industry, but then the local council cancelled the plan after seeing the potential of the repurposed former spinning factory. If you had asked me 15 years ago, I would have told you it's great to use this land for construction to seal the soil surface under concrete. The development of our spinning mill site showed us you can unseal a concreted area and revive it. It was a process and now I see a more nuanced picture. I'm convinced we don't have to seal all land surfaces, we have to monitor the use of our land and restrict it. And we can bring new life to the old, just as we're trying to do in our Town Center, repurposing existing buildings instead of concreting over free space, giving unused spaces back to nature. These steps are effective for combating urban sprawl not just in mind.

Loys [Music] here in the West Pomeranian village of Doral. Olaf Schneller is breathing new life into the ground.

25 years ago the trained gardener left Berlin to come out here where land was still affordable, but the soil was in a bad state. The shopping I took over ailing soil. Rapeseed had been grown here every third year. Rapeseed is cruciferous and cruciferous plants always bring soil disease to the earth. It was really noticeable back then. There were some plants I simply couldn't grow here.

Healthy soil needs diversified crop rotation. Different crops have different effects on the soil. For example, pulses such as beans concentrate nitrogen in the soil and nitrogen acts like fertilizer.

One of Schneller's methods is so-called area rotting which adds nutrients similar to cow dung. We mow it all down, chop it up, add a plant ferment, and then work that into the soil. The basic idea comes from prairie landscapes on which a wide diversity of vegetation grows and which are grazed by ruminant animals are full of microorganisms that have passed through its rumen, one of its stomachs. but instead of from a cow's rumen, here, the microorganisms develop in a bucket. they develop in wild herbs the gardener gathered locally. Every leaf essentially has different bacterial cultures. We're trying to multiply these by adding sugarcane, molasses, and a bit of salt so that especially the lactic acid bacteria multiply. those are the ones found in the cow's digestive tract in its rumen, so we are imitating the cows intestines in here. This is what makes the ground fertile. In the end, Schneller sprays the herbal dung on the interim plants which are then mowed down and worked into the surface.

A simple but effective method, but what I'm doing here isn't covered in gardening degrees. soil science and fertilization were two separate subjects Back then, no one understood that they actually belong together, but slowly, especially on the practical side of things. What we're doing here is becoming more and more present.

A holistic approach where the gardener nourishes the soil rather than the plants. The 56 year old has not yet reached his goal, but he's very pleased about one thing. This is the gesundheit. the health of my plants. It's the end of August and there are no [Music] [music] supplies top restaurants all over Germany with his vegetables from Doral, including in Berlin. Sometimes the gardener even delivers his produce personally, for example, to a Berlin restaurant which has just been awarded with the newly introduced green Michelin star. The gardener and the chef met at a trade fair. Chef Lauda sees many reasons to buy vegetables from Olaf Schneller. It's definitely due to the quality of the product. It's just unbeatable. And that's true. for all the suppliers we work with, we are very selective. We want to work with great people who enjoy what they do. [Music] In Styria Austria, this dedication is tangible. They build up good soil which leads to healthy produce and benefits the climate. The farmers cannot manage this without support, so the Eco Region is connecting them with private individuals and businesses. One of the networkers is Jochen Buchmayer. The companies pay for the farmers to pump Co2 out of the atmosphere into the ground, something most companies cannot do themselves. So it's money from society via companies that gets diverted into sustainability and ecologically friendly agriculture.

[Music] This must first be verified: A job for Florian Feuscher. Equipped with measuring tools and a top secret map, he examines Joseph Nagle's pumpkin fields. The farmer does not know where Forsher is taking his samples. He's calculating how much carbon the soil has retained since the last measurement. [music] We take at least 25 samples from this field. The sample is then mixed, homogenized and taken to the laboratory for testing. The results will determine the farmer's cash premium.

It's a big day for Yosef Nagal as he's finding out to what extent his hard work will pay off. Jochen Buchmayer has the results.

Hi Jocan, Hi Sepi. Nice to see you, Thank you!

Nagal has been building up humus on his field since 2016. his products have definitely improved as the farmer demonstrates with his pumpkin seed oil, a regional specialty.

when it's disliked. when I tilt it, you can see that there is no red or brown coloring. It really has a green color. His efforts have paid off for the harvest, But what about in terms of carbon? How much has Nagle captured from the atmosphere and stored in his fields? How many tons of Co2 has a farmer managed to capture in this earth? In Sepi's case, he captured 152 tons, which that makes four thousand, five hundred Euros.

Yosef Nagal is more than happy with his premium and with his contribution to climate protection. If all farmers in Germany cultivated their fields to build up humus as Nagal does, it would compensate for all of the Co2 emissions of the German transport sector, working the soil for our climate and regaining ground. The eco region of kind of shows that this is possible and rewarding. [music] You.


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