I spoke to Josh Tickell, who is the author of Kiss the Ground: How the Food You Eat Can Reverse Climate Change, Heal Your Body & Ultimately Save Our World, about why he wrote the book, how the food we eat can make a difference, what he learned from the interviews he captured in the book, and his best career advice.
Josh, along with his wife Rebecca, Directed the documentary based on the book also called Kiss the Ground. They previously directed documentaries including Fuel, The Big Fix, Pump, and Good Fortune. The documentaries have been shortlisted for Academy Awards, shown in the White House, won awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and have been viewed by over 50 million people worldwide. His first book, From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, jumpstarted the biodiesel movement and raised billions of dollars for the algae fuel industry.
Dan Schawbel: Why did you decide to write “Kiss the Ground” and what message are you looking to get across to readers?
Josh Tickell: The United States and now the rest of the world are in a food crisis. Globally, we have more obese people than undernourished people. That means we have basically two types of eaters: people whose bodies are getting sick from their food and people who are starving from lack of food. Both issues have the same root cause and the same solution – the soil. Whatever is happening in the soil is happening in our bodies. In countries like the US where we are pushing lots of chemicals into the soil to grow bulk commodity crops devoid of nutrition, our bodies are full of chemicals and lack critical nutrients. In many developing countries where the soil is decertifying and where it is starving for nourishment, the people are starving as well.
The macro story of Kiss the Ground is even more important as it will likely determine the future of our civilization. The way we treat soil isn’t just connected to our nutrition and health, it’s directly connected to the planet’s climate. There are only three sinks for carbon – the atmosphere, the oceans and the soil. The soil is by far the largest sink and can hold more carbon than the atmosphere and oceans combined. Currently, we have dumped so much CO2 into the atmosphere that the biogenic cycle of Earth is attempting to create balance through moving the CO2 into the oceans. In the ocean, CO2 turns into carbonic acid where it kills the delicate life forms that produce about 50% of the oxygen we breathe. So it does not matter whether or not you believe in anthropogenic causes of climate change because we can show with absolute certainty that CO2 emissions are killing the very thing that maintains the oxygen humans need to breathe. This is bad news.
The good news is that there is a way to solve hunger, solve obesity, and solve the CO2 problem – all at the same time. Through regenerating our soils we can grow more food, more nutritious food and feed considerably more people. This is what the book, Kiss the Ground, shows us how to do.
Schawbel: How can the food we eat make us healthier, more productive and save the world?
Tickell: The Standard American Diet (SAD) is horrible. About 63% of our calories come from bulk foods found in bags, boxes and cartons that are generally in the middle of the supermarket. Those same foods come from crops like corn, soy and wheat that are grown in the middle of the country. We know that stuff like corn syrup and un-healthy oils that are by-products of commodity crops create the conditions for inflammation in the body. The diet that I outline in Kiss the Ground is the opposite. It is an inexpensive way to eat that provides more nutrition, is derived from the foods around the edges of the supermarket (foods that are generally grown around the edges of the country), and foods that help the body reduce inflammation and eliminate waste. If you want to get slim, feel great and look great, you cannot do this by eating “normally” but I can guarantee you can do it with the regenerative diet outlined in Kiss the Ground.
Schawbel: What did you learn from your interviews with chefs, farmers and scientists? Did any of their answers surprise or enlighten you?
Tickell: The most surprising thing has been how easy it is to grow healthy food, to make dishes that are good and to scientifically show that the garbage that we have been enticed to eat really is as bad for us as we suspect. The other surprising thing about my investigation into healing the soil, healing our bodies and healing the climate is that meat is not the enemy. In fact, pasture-raised, grass-fed and carefully managed cows can mimic the buffalo that once roamed across America. Chickens, when managed correctly can be powerful allies in regenerating soil. To do this one must remove these animals from confinement, but it can and is being done in a large scale. And the places where it is being done correctly show radically improved carbon in their soils.
Schawbel: How can the decisions we make on a daily basis make our lives better? How has the journey of making the film, and writing this book, impacted your food choices?
Tickell: In time, we will come to understand food as the most powerful weapon in the fight against climate change. That does not mean we ignore the push to reduce fossil fuel emissions. But reducing fossil fuel emissions will do nothing to pull the legacy load of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or stop the oceans from acidifying. To correct the balance of the gasses in our atmosphere and ocean and restore the biogenic cycle requires that we, as a civilization, cover soils, stop spraying copious amounts of chemicals on them, and start growing crops and animals that regenerate soil carbon. It’s not rocket science, it’s basic agriculture but its driven by a focus on carbon rather than a focus on bulk. The result is a win-win-win situation for people, the soil and the planet.
Schawbel: What are your top three pieces of career advice?
Tickell: Zig while others zag. Millennials are facing unprecedented unemployment. The need for food is growing as is our global population. But farmers are not being replaced as they retire. Young people should consider going into agriculture. (Hint: Whole Foods multibillion dollar sale to Amazon.com was no accident). Look at the value of biology to supply what we thought that chemistry could only supply. The biologists will be to the next era of our civilization what our chemists were in the 1950’s and our coders have been for the dot com boom. Finally, find ways to monetize sinking carbon into soil using agriculture. We build our world by burning fossils. Now we must save it by putting their emissions back into the ground. It seems only logical that making soil more carbon rich whereby it can grow more food for more people would be intrinsiclly economically valuable. How do we quantify that and drive the market with it? There’s the next trillion-dollar industry.