As we inch our way towards a green economy, debate policies and advocate for fossil fuel companies to be held accountable, one thing is for sure: using eco-friendly materials means we have to grow our resources, not make them in a lab. It all starts on a farm.
Soil plays a massive role in keeping the environment safe. Amongst many other things, healthy soil balances greenhouse gases to mitigate climate change and plays a vital role in plant growth and farm sustainability.
We had the privilege to interview Soil Scientist Arnab Bhowmik, PhD to better understand what soil has to do with our climate, learn about his research on industrial hemp, and pick his brains on the intersection of these two arenas.
Meet Arnab Bhowmik, PhD
Dr. Bhowmik has been on the soil journey for a long time. Since high school he’s been fascinated with knowing that things which we cannot see play such a big role in our daily lives.
As Assistant Professor of Soil Science/Soil Microbiology at North Carolina Agricultural & Tech University, and head of the University’s Hemp Research Program, Dr. Bhowmik is working to determine optimal growing conditions - nutrient requirements and soil conditions - for different CBD hemp varieties in North Carolina.
His group’s research also focuses on identifying different climate-adaptive sustainable soil health management practices to produce value-added hemp products.
Here are key takeaways from our conversation, and things to know about soil and the role it plays in keeping the environment safe, and our climate in check.
Soil; not equivalent to dirt
It is not news that many people refer to the soil as dirt; many times, people even use these words- dirt and soil interchangeably. However, the soil is very different from dirt. Dirt, unlike the soil, is an unwanted substance that we try to get rid of. It do not bring any benefit to people.
Soil, on the other hand, has a lot of benefits to both people and the environment in general. Learning about soil is fascinating, as you'll know various things and clear every doubt about soil being equivalent to dirt.
To start with, soil is a living system, and dirt is not. Although there's more to it, the soil is a medium for plant growth. The soil is an essential part of the environment that supports plant growth, cleans and conserves water, and houses many organisms. Bet you have not heard about that the quality of the soil, air quality, water quality... all these qualities determine the growth of plants in the soil.
Yes, the soil is the outermost part of the earth; however, the soil is a lot more than that.
Microbes; a vital player in soil quality
Have you ever wondered how the soil contributes to plant growth? Have you been curious about where the nutrients the plants consume come from? Microbes! That is the one-word answer. Microbes are organisms that stay in the soil; the soil houses them.
These microbes are living organisms; they are an essential part of the soil. Soil microbiologists are always quick to say that "without microbes, we are nothing"; this is to reiterate that microbes' roles can not and should never be downplayed. It is very amusing to know that things like microbes that can not be seen by our naked eyes play such vital roles in our daily lives.
One of the many vital benefits of microbes is decomposing wastes. We don't always have as many wastes as we ought to because the good guys-microbes decompose them. The microbes play a vital role in transforming these wastes into nutrients that are then consumed by plants. In that sense, waste is reduced, plants are well fed and are growing, and the environment is clean and reasonably balanced.
Also, microbes play a significant role in the balance of greenhouse gases. It is essential to know that there are some microbes present in the soil that produce greenhouse gases, and there are others that consume these greenhouse gases. To strike a balance in the environment, soil management is essential. The way one manages their soil will determine the type of microbes the soil will contain.
Keeping it green; organic farming vs conventional farming
When you talk about organic farming, you talk about a lot of events, including microbial transformation. There are two meanings attached to organic farming.
The first meaning is farming without the use of synthetic chemicals. These synthetic chemicals could be synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, and insecticides. Instead of these synthetic chemicals, only organic products are used as compost and manure, planting cover crops, etc. In organic farming, the plants get their nutrients only from natural products.
It can also be tagged organic when certified organic by the USDA- United States Department of Agriculture. The USDA has specific standards and guidelines that should be met before any product can be certified organic. Many people look for the organic label when shopping at grocery stores.
It is not the same as growing naturally/organically. The procedures set by the USDA must be duly followed to have a value-added product in the market.
Typical conventional farming focuses on feeding the plant, supplying them with nutrients to help them grow. However, to feed the cycle, the soil needs to be fed. The nutrients are applied to the soil and the plants, in turn, derive their nutrients from the soil.
The bigger picture; a sustainable farm and a safe environment
Many farmers will opt for the use of chemicals on their farm because it takes time for the soil to build up health with organic practices. It requires a lot of patience, and many farmers already have a target to meet that may not give them the luxury of time to let the soil build-up its health. Lack of patience is one of the reasons why a farmer will go for conventional farming.
Many farmers are not interested in greenhouse gases. They are most particular about the yield from their farms. Farmers should be enlightened on the performance of the soil. It is necessary to have an excellent yield. However, the application of chemicals on the soil will make the soil lose its health and performance over time, and it will become difficult for plants to do well.
Farmers should be educated on the aftermath of the prolonged use of chemicals on the soil; not only does it affect the sustainability of the farm after a period, but it also negatively affects the environment. Many farmers have adopted different soil health practices to preserve and improve the quality of the soil.
Then we turned to Dr. Bhowmik's research on determining optimal growing conditions for different CBD hemp varieties in North Carolina.
CBD is the acronym of Cannabinol. It is one of the chemicals found in Cannabis plants and is currently basking in its rockstar status driven up by the media, business, and investor attention. It represents only 2% of what hemp is capable of.
CBD is a non-psychoactive compound majorly found in hemp. So, in the past couple of years, the CBD market has been rapidly expanding, and this growth has brought awareness to the broader benefits of the hemp plant. However, a key challenge is that there is no adequate database detailing how to grow hemp. Most research that has been done in the past was carried out on fiber.
The overall goal of Dr. Bhowmik’s hemp research is to improve N.C. A&T’s research capacity by developing a knowledge platform on sustainable hemp production that will ultimately benefit the small scale, limited resources farmers interested in adopting this high value crop.
Role of climate on CBD growth
Climate plays a significant role in the growth of CBD, but it does not limit CBD hemp to be grown in a particular place as long as all the required food and fertilizer that the plant needs to succeed are provided. So, if a farmer has a good site with good drainage that doesn’t hold a lot of water, it would be an excellent place to grow hemp. Keep in mind, soil which doesn’t have all these but has a PH level close to 6.5 is good. So it is the physical, chemical, and biological properties that help a plant grow.
As long as these aspects are well taken care of, CBD hemp can grow almost everywhere.
Benefits hemp provides to the environment
Hemp is a crop that absorbs more carbon dioxide than any other crop of in nature. So, hemp is a natural atmosphere purifier, which cleanses the air we breathe.
Nothing is a waste with hemp. Its fibers can be used for a wide range of different things. Seeds gotten from hemp can be used to manufacture healthy food products. The flowers and leaves can also be used to produce personal care products.
Hemp replenishes the soil. There are lots of nutrients in the leaves and stem too. So, as the hemp plant grows and leaves fall on the ground, it decomposes and replenishes the soil with nutrients. This makes the soil ready for the next crop to be planted in it. In many cases, it's used as a rotation crop.
Hemp also helps to prevent erosion. The hemp roots are firm and can grow up to 9 feet deep. This type of roots system can bind the soil and avoid erosion, one of the significant problems farmers worldwide experience today.
Hemp doesn’t require much water to grow. It has the natural ability to irrigate itself, so very little water is needed for it to grow. This makes the hemp plant different from other natural fiber plants, which are very thirsty and require a lot of water.
In General, not only is hemp beneficial to the environment and soil, but it also takes care of human and wildlife health. Hemp is indeed a power plant!
Unfortunately, because of the legal issues surrounding it, it is not currently treated as a typical plant. Although there are outreach and research pieces written about it, which scientists hope will help view hemp in a better light.
Feed the soil, not the plant
Soil is the largest reservoir of carbon after the oceans. Healthy soil will operate as nature intended, and help us grow healthier foods, provide longevity for farm land, and work its magic with the climate.
Common practice or conventional farming ideology is to feed the plants. Applying an excess of fertilizers, excess of chemicals, just for the sake of plants.
Instead, focus on providing nutrition to the source, the soil, if you want to feed the plants.
Add to that, hemp should also be treated as a typical plant, or even more than that, because it offers enormous benefits for farmers, their land, our climate, and serves as an eco-friendly resource for a range of industries.
To make our environment a greener and safe place, everyone has a role to play, and it starts with little things like microbes.
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