Deborah Koons Garcia’s “Symphony of the Soil” reps the latest in a long line of documentaries extolling the many virtues of organic farming over the nefarious legacy of industrial food production — one of which, “The Future of Food,” also helmed by the director herself. This time around, the emphasis falls more on the bounty of well-tended soil and the beauty of growing things (via time-lapse photography and animated watercolor drawings), and less on the plagues of chemical-based agriculture. Soil constitutes the alpha and omega of “Symphony”; how soil’s fertility can be restored echoes the question of how many times the same documentary field can be tilled.
Biologists and geologists trek across the startlingly picturesque landscapes of Norway and Hawaii, literally and figuratively digging down decades, centuries and millennia to show the assorted processes by which soils are formed and their various properties. A slideshow at the center of the frame distinguishes among 11 types of soil, from the most fertile to the most arid. Soil, it seems, could be considered an ecosystem in itself, a living thing whose health and biodiversity prove essential to the growth of anything else.
A seemingly endless procession of organic farmers from Washington state to Wales to India wander their flourishing fields, displaying the fruits of the “dance with nature” that is organic agriculture. With minor variations, all make the same strong case for a simple solution to soil exhausted by plowing, chemical fertilizers and pesticides: Give back to the soil what was taken from it and it will endlessly replenish itself. Thus everyone advocates composting, cover crops and drip lines to radically reduce the use of noxious fertilizers and pesticides leaching into the land, while greatly increasing the soil’s productivity. Soil erosion and exhaustion are not only stopped but reversed. One farmer boasts of having created eight inches of topsoil in five years. Celebrated chefs then chime in to attest to the richer taste of organically grown meat and veggies.
Koons Garcia has obviously opted for an upbeat approach: Choruses of scientists and farmers sing the praises of organic farming while John Chater’s camera visually devours the fruits, vegetables and livestock produced by healthy dirt. By the time innumerable interviewees have celebrated the viability of small-scale organic farming, industrial agribusiness seems to be a dominant aberration rather than an accepted practice.
Throughout “Symphony,” the filmmakers seed the idea of ecological catastrophes that result from chemically dependent agriculture. But only after Koons Garcia has established the strength and viability of its alternative does she bring on the specter of imminent agricultural Armageddon, with its attendant barren soil, polluted waters and birth defects.