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The Dirt on Soil

Experts says humans need to get humble about humus, “like yesterday.”

August 8, 2013
Dr. Janet Six , Maui Weekly

Australian Graeme Sait, CEO of Nutri-tech Solutions, came to the University of Hawai'i Maui College (UHMC) to speak about relationships--more specifically, about the relationships between soil health and planetary health; between ocean health and global warming; and most importantly, between humans and humus.

A dynamic speaker, Sait captivated his audience last month with his breadth of knowledge and wry sense of humor.

"After every presentation, I always get asked 'What was that word you used--humus? Isn't that the chickpea dip?'" quipped Sait.

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“Composting is the mantra!” said Graeme Sait, CEO of Australia-based Nutri-Tech Solutions, explaining the relationship between soil health and global climate change.

Described by Sait as "a chocolate brown, sweet smelling substance," humus is a critical player in global warming. So what exactly is humus? Think topsoil--that layer created by the decomposition of organic materials by a wide variety of microorganisms. These microorganisms are carbon-based life forms. When they are alive and thriving, they naturally sequester a tremendous about of carbon that would normally be in the atmosphere. So humus, when healthy, functions as a storage system.

According to Sait, the etymology of the word humus means "of and for the earth." It is also the root for the word human and humility. Sait said, humans need to get humble about humus, "like yesterday." Industrial farming practices, such as mono-cropping (for example, sugar and pineapple production on the islands) have degraded the soil. Pesticides intended to eradicate a single pernicious organism kill healthy biota as well. Today, much of the planet's humus has been negatively impacted, and the Earth's natural carbon storage system is failing. Carbon once sequestered in the soil is now in our atmosphere.

At present, we have experienced a 1 percent rise in our global temperature. In addition to the microorganisms in the soil, bioplankton in our oceans also play an essential role, creating 60 percent of the oxygen we breathe!

Sait said, so far, the Earth's oceans have sequestered 60 percent of the anthropogenic (man-made) carbon, causing the oceans to become increasingly acidic. This acidification of the oceans has led to a 40 percent loss in oxygen-creating bioplankton.

"The remaining algae and krill will be further impacted within the next 20 years, so we need to return the carbon back into the soil as humus--like yesterday," Sait emphasized.

So how exactly do we do this? According to Sait, by employing biological principles such as the use of a fungus known as mycorrhizae. Micorrihizas form a symbiotic or mutualistic relationship with plant root systems. Through this intimate association, the plant provides the fungus with direct access to carbohydrates, such as sucrose and glucose, created by the plant in its above-ground limb and leaf system. In return, the fungus makes it easier for the plant to access water and minerals locked away in the inorganic soil.

Sait also spoke about the often-dysfunctional relationship we have with food. He recommended "putting a face to your food," encouraging audience members to use their power as consumers to support those practicing regenerative farming.

"Support those individual doing the right thing by buying produce at farmers' markets from local vendors employing organic techniques," said Sait.

So, in the end, it all comes down to relationships. By understanding relationships, we can restore the soil, sequester excess carbon currently in our atmosphere, save the bioplankton and continue to live on the planet--or not.

If we fail to recognize our effect on these crucial relationships, we will continue to stumble blindly down a path of self-destruction caused by our own hubris about the importance of humus, Sait summarized.

The choice is ours.



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