What Healthy Soil Looks Like | Natural Resources Conservation Soil Program

The rich, deep color of this soil indicates exactly what healthy soil looks like. Use of a diverse blend of crops, grasses, and cover crops creates a protective blanket that feeds and nurtures the soil.

See what healthy soils look like by Natural Resources Conservation Soil Health Campaign \ CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

In the midst of conversations about how climate change and population growth are putting increased stress on food production, governments, activists and farmers have tackled issues such as water, crop yield and GMOs. But not much has been said about soil. That’s all changing with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) declaring 2015 the International Year of Soils, driven by an increasing awareness that soil health is at the root of planetary, agricultural and, of course, human health. Healthy soil supplies nutrients, water, oxygen and root support for plants and can provide a buffer to protect roots from extreme temperature fluctuations – something plants increasingly need as the weather becomes more volatile from the effects of climate change.

This increased interest in soils is driven in part by the fact that 33 per cent of land across the globe is moderately to highly degraded from erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution. The irony is that the main culprit of soil degradation is the thing that most relies on healthy soil: agriculture. Industrial agriculture’s intensive crop production, which relies on the heavy application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, has depleted soil to the point that we are in danger of losing significant portions of arable land. In an attempt to counteract this trend of soil depletion and desertification, the FAO is working with countries around the world to implement strategies for sustainable land and soil management.

Healthy soil is its own ecosystem of organisms, including fungi, worms and bacteria (the good kind). Microbes control pathogenic fungi and help plant growth through heir symbiotic relationship with plant root systems. These little ecologies are responsible for turning organic waste (food, leaves etc.) into compost by speeding along its decay to contribute to the dark, amorphous part of soil referred to as humus. Healthy soil also contains the 15 nutrients required for plants growth and it’s estimated that the absence of even one of those nutrients can limit crop yield. Soil health is so vital to plant growth that the FAO has suggested that sustainable soil management could produce up to 58 per cent more food.

A number of methods can be used to help encourage and maintain soil health.

Agroecology, as the term suggests, is based on an understanding of the interactions between plants, animals, humans and their environment in an agricultural system. It uses a whole systems approach wherein these different actors are considered in relation to one another and managed for the greatest benefit to all. Traditional methods are combined with modern technologies to maximize productivity while also conserving natural resources.

Organic farming is another method of soil management that refrains from using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that degrade soil with prolonged use. When based in the holistic principles on which it was founded, organic farming bears similarities to agroecology: Crop rotation and a whole systems approach are core components. The main difference between agroecology and organic farming is the regulation that allows some farms to be certified organic for adhering to certain rules.

This certification doesn’t require the use of holistic farming approaches, but rather emphasizes a ban on the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers – many organic farms otherwise function similarly to dominant industrial farms. On the flip side, some farms adhere to organic methods, but haven’t been certified due to issues of time or money (certification can be expensive and a farm must be free of synthetic chemicals for years first). As far as soil management is concerned, the use of integrated farming practices to prevent farmers from relying on synthetic chemicals is more important than the certification. 

Conservation agriculture uses a minimal soil disturbance approach. Soil will have a permanent cover, such as mulch or a cover crop, and farmers use crop rotation as in organic farming and agroecology. The key consideration with conservation agriculture is for the loss of organic matter to never exceed soil formation. The FAO and Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security in Lesotho have set up a program to promote conservation agriculture, largely in response to the food insecurity crisis they experienced in 2012. Soil erosion is a big problem in Lesotho, so conservation methods ensure soil protection while also increasing soil quality for better harvests.

Tilling is a large contributor to soil loss, so zero-tillage agriculture takes conservation agriculture further by refraining from tilling entirely. This method also maintains permanent protective soil covers and allows microorganisms and worms to do the work of aerating and mixing the soil.

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Agroforestry includes tree management along with farm management. This is particularly beneficial in areas prone to flooding and drought, since trees and their root systems provide protection against winds, erosion and flood damage. In the flood plains of Siyang County in China, poplars have been planted to protect against winds, floods, sandstorms and soil erosion, making the land more suitable for agriculture. The trees also contribute to the decomposition of organic matter, which has increased the quality of the formerly sandy soil of the region. A similar project called The Great Green Wall Initiative has been undertaken by the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, where they’re using the management of forests and rangelands to combat the desertification of the region. In Senegal alone, 27,000 hectares of land have been restored, aided by the planting of 11 million trees.

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This move toward sustainable soil management practices is encouraging. It demonstrates a more holistic understanding of agriculture and will be important for building resiliency as we adapt to climate change. It is also a huge step in moving away from industrial agriculture, which as we can see contributes not only to deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and chemical pollution, but also destroys the very soil it relies on. Hopefully this International Year of Soils will see the implementation of more sustainable agricultural practices and mark the beginning of a more sustainable future.

Genevieve is earning her master's degree in Environmental Studies at York University with a focus on sustainable food systems, food education and food literature. In The Mouthful, she blogs about the environmental politics and possibilities of food. Genevieve is a certified pastry chef and aspiring novelist. She lives in Toronto. @GFullan

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