Saving our soil – join the global movement to save soil from extinction

Photography Teodora Berglund

If Arizona Muse were in charge, soil would be at the top of the endangered list – and she’s not alone in her thinking.

The world-famous American model, whose face has graced the cover of more than 40 Vogue magazines, is one of a growing number of high-profile personalities using their fame to urgently spread the word about the global soil crisis.

From March to June 2022, Sadhguru, founder of the Isha Foundation in India, rode a motorcycle all the way from London to New Delhi, meeting global leaders and citizens along the way as part of the Conscious Planet ‘Save Soil’ movement to educate about the vital role that soil plays in the planet’s sustainable future.

“Soil itself is going extinct,” says Sadhguru. “Fifty-two per cent of the world’s agricultural soils are already degraded. Eighty-seven per cent of all life depends on soil.”

Soil degradation is the most pressing ecological challenge of our time, yet it’s something most of us don’t even think about. Trillions of microorganisms live in the ground beneath our feet but it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind.

Not only is soil degradation affecting the nutrient levels of our food supply, according to many experts it is also hurtling humanity towards a mass extinction event. The facts make grim reading but are necessary to comprehend if we’re to halt the predicted trajectory by the UN of having only 60 soil cycles left to sustain us.

The good news is that it is not all bad news. There are things we can do to repair the damage, including on an individual level.

Arizona Muse is the founder of DIRT. Her mission is to raise awareness about the climate emergency and climate solution that is biodynamic farming. Photo Teodora Berglund

It’s what motivated Muse to found DIRT in 2021. DIRT is a not-for-profit organisation that supports and promotes agricultural projects that are doing away with harmful chemicals and instead rejuvenating life within soil by enhancing its ability to capture and store carbon.

She’s also partnered with Weleda for its Save Earth’s Skin campaign, which emphasises that, just as we care for the living breathing eco-system that is our skin, we must also do the same for the soil that sustains our life on Earth.

“Healthy soil protects biodiversity, prevents flooding, and locks in carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases. It’s fundamental to our existence, and yet, due to the effects of industrial agriculture, this most precious resource is in crisis,” says Muse.

The trillions of microorganisms that soil is home to counts for 25 per cent of the world’s total biodiversity.

“I used to think of soil as one thing that blanketed the Earth,” says Muse. “Then I learned that in fact it’s made up of trillions of tiny microorganisms. These little guys are all eating and pooping and having sex and making babies in a lively world beneath – what we call – the surface of the Earth. They need our help. By composting we can help their populations recover because really soil should be on the extinction list already according to me. When we spread compost over fields or gardens, we’re literally dumping microorganisms into the land and thereby repopulate them and bring life back to dirt.”

If Arizona Muse were in charge, soil would be at the top of the endangered list. Photo Teodora Berglund

Nutritional potency

Evidence shows that changes in soil fertility affects the nutrient content of fruits and vegetables – crops grown with a focus on long-term soil management have greater nutritional value.

“From poor soil health comes poor plant health and when plants have lost their ability to defend themselves against pests, the pests come. Hence the application of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to combat the pests. However, the origin of the problem so often stems from soil,” explains author Dr Libby Weaver. “Over the long term, nutrient deficiencies contribute to major illnesses.”

Sadhguru calls this “hidden hunger”, where soil depletion is robbing our food of nutrients. “Everywhere else in the world, doctors are telling people to shift from meat to vegetarian diets but in India, doctors are advising people to shift to meat. This is because we have not taken care of the soil. The micronutrient content in the soil has gone down so dramatically.”

Soil snapshot

Chemical spraying, tillage and other land practices are often to blame for microbially impoverished soils.

“You hear a lot of talk about sterile soils that are damaged so much, nothing is growing in them but that’s not true,” says professor Craig Bunt, programme director, agriculture innovation at Otago University. “You can have compromised soils but to say that you could have a soil with no microbial activity in there I think is naïve because it’s incredibly complex.”

The Soil Quality Data for Land 2021 report produced by the Ministry for the environment observes that the biodiversity of soil is not routinely monitored in Aotearoa, despite being an important measure of overall soil health. In fact understanding soil biodiversity and its effects on the wider environment remains a large knowledge gap in Aotearoa and globally.

Seven soil indicators used to monitor New Zealand soil are: microporosity (soil compaction); olsen phosphorus (amount of phosphorus available to plants and
a measure of soil fertility); total carbon; total nitrogen; mineralisable nitrogen (amount of organic nitrogen that microorganisms can process and make available to plants); pH (soil acidity); and bulk density.

Intensive use of food-producing land can degrade soil health, which has flow-on effects on soil productivity. Large numbers of livestock per hectare and heavy machinery can compact the soil – this has a negative effect on the microporosity of the soil, can increase nitrogen dioxide emissions and lower productivity. Pastures on degraded soils respond to less nitrogen fertilisers. Diversity of microorganisms in the soil is lower at sites with a history of nitrogen fertilisation.

The Ministry for the Environment reported in 2018 that New Zealand loses 192 million tonnes of soil from erosion each year and 44 per cent of that comes from pasture-based land use.

Other threats to prime productive land in New Zealand include urban expansion on the fringes of our cities.

The Soil Quality for Land Data 2021 report concludes that if this continues, we risk our current food production systems becoming unsustainable.

Bunt believes we need a uniquely New Zealand way of looking at soil because we haven’t created the same situation in our soil as, for example, the dust bowl scenario in the American West.

Instead, we need to create robust, resilient soil in New Zealand with mixed pastures as well as changing and adapting our current management practices.

One crop that’s currently assisting soil health in Aotearoa is alfalfa, which doesn’t require a nitrogen fertiliser and has deep roots, meaning it can tap into groundwater much more readily.

Bunt believes we also need to look at destocking cattle in a manageable and controlled way. “Some are calling for radical change, but radical change can lead to stuff-ups, which is what happened in the Port Hills when they removed a lot of stock and pasture became a large dry biomass that caught on fire.”

Arizona’s DIRT not-for-profit organisation supports and promotes agricultural projects that are rejuvenating life within soil. Photo Teodora Berglund

Regenerative solutions

Bunt imagines a future landscape with more trees, fewer animals and paddocks that don’t look like what we see now. “We might have animals on farms to manage the soil and the growth of plants but not necessarily as a food or fibre source.

And if the world went vegan and lab-grown meat and milk did truly decimate the New Zealand livestock industries, Bunt doesn’t think we’d suffer as a nation.

“We could produce the world’s high-quality soy seed, and currently produce half the world’s organic carrot seed. New Zealand’s unsung seeds industry is the envy of the world,” Bunt says. “Canterbury is also one of the best environments in the world for growing peas, and peas being a legume, don’t need nitrogen fertiliser.”

Muse, like many others, believes a biodynamic approach is the answer, and Weleda’s commitment to soil regeneration and biodiversity is what motivated her to front the Save Earth’s Skin campaign.

Weleda, the world’s largest natural and organic skincare and remedies company, was founded on biodynamic gardening principles. Globally it manages more than 250 sq km of land across eight gardens worldwide, including one in Hawke’s Bay.

Muse would love for biodynamics to be a word in everybody’s vocabulary, spoken about not just as “the latest trend in sustainable beauty”, but as essential practice, and a climate crisis solution.

“Biodynamics can be applied to grow food and fibre crops, manage forests, raise livestock, and regenerate natural landscapes or sites that have been exploited by human endeavours. Using biodynamic methods means with every year of production, life under the soil of a biodynamic farm becomes healthier and more alive, populated with trillions of microorganisms and better able to absorb rainfall,” she says.

Arizona recently relocated to the Spanish countryside where she regularly volunteers on biodynamic farms. Photo Teodora Berglund


Garden To Table Trust, a New Zealand not-for-profit, is also a recent recipient of Weleda’s 1% Programme, which supports social and environmental causes.

A key part of the puzzle is education, says Hannah Bower, Weleda sustainability activator. Garden To Table is a hands-on programme connecting children to the land, teaching them where food comes from, and how to turn that into a nourishing meal. The partnership has enabled Garden To Table to create resources around what lives in the soil and how to care for it (including composting).

“If we can wake them up to how fascinating soil is and how totally alive it is, they are more likely to care, and then more likely to look after it,” says Victoria Bernard, Garden to Table curriculum and community relationships manager.

Bower believes the partnership will help with eco-anxiety that’s come through in the next generation. “It’s giving them the tools through educational knowledge, so they feel empowered to be doing something rather than feeling helpless by the situation,” says Bower.

Muse, a mother of two, is also optimistic. “The future is unwritten – we can remake the world and make it better. We already have the tools, and many people are already working on the solutions. Hope is at hand – we just need government and business sectors to pull their socks up.”

What You Can Do

Select one or two of the following actions to help support your soil.

• Choose organic and biodynamically produced food. Not only is it better for our biochemical pathways and immune health, it’s also beneficial for our soil.

• Talk to your local grocery vendor and request that they start sourcing organic or biodynamically grown food.

• If you have an organic or biodynamic farm nearby, contact them and see if you can buy directly from them, or if they would be willing to have you come and volunteer your time. There’s nothing better than spending the day outside, doing some good old manual labour.

• Compost your food scraps at home or find a composting charity to support.

• Hold off on pesticides and fertilisers, which, long term, deplete soil.

• Support companies like Weleda whose practices nourish soil.

• Teach your children about the magic of soil.

• Bring land under vegetation and shade. Plant litter will increase soil organic matter.

• Get involved. Soil4Climate is a local community project to build soil health and demonstrate the positive climate impacts of organic growing.

• Check out websites kisstheground.com, soil4climate and dirt.charity for more information and projects you can support.

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