Dirt. You wash it off your hands, walk on it and probably feel squeamish when too much of it gets on your skin. Not something you think about too often. But soil is an important resource for everything from human health to agriculture to water filtration. Let’s start with a dramatic figure to set the scene of why we need to give the soil a little (a lot of) love. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): 33% of the world’s soil is moderate to highly degraded due to erosion, drought, loss of soil organic carbon, loss of biodiversity, destruction of ecosystems, habitat destruction, and pollution. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that half of the topsoil on Earth has been lost over the past 150 years. This is a huge problem! Soil is a finite resource, which means its loss and degradation is not recoverable within the average human lifespan. This is critically important because it threatens our ability to provide food for a growing population and jeopardizes the quality of our environment. It would have been hard to find any reference to soil health twenty years ago. Soil was conventionally treated as an inert growing medium. Today’s explosion of interest in soil health reflects a fundamental shift in soil science and a corresponding shift in the way we care for our nation’s soils. Soil is now recognized as a living ecosystem teeming with billions of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that are the foundation of an elegant symbiotic ecosystem. Soil health, also referred to as soil quality, is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. This definition speaks to the importance of managing soils so they are sustainable for future generations. To do this, we need to remember that soil contains living organisms that when provided the basic necessities of life - food, shelter, and water - perform functions required to produce food and fibre.
Only “living” things can have health, so viewing soil as a living ecosystem reflects a fundamental shift in the way we care for our nation’s soils. Soil isn’t an inert growing medium, but rather is teaming with billions of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that are the foundation of an elegant symbiotic ecosystem. Soil is an ecosystem that can be managed to provide nutrients for plant growth, absorb and hold rainwater for use during dryer periods, filter and buffer potential pollutants from leaving our fields, serve as a firm foundation for agricultural activities, and provide habitat for soil microbes to flourish and diversify to keep the ecosystem running smoothly.
Do you grow your own veggies? If yes, you know that they grow better and have fewer pests and diseases if they are grown in a soil that is rich in organic matter. Adding composted kitchen scraps, well-rotted manure or bags of purchased compost to the soil supports the beneficial biota living in the soil. These billions of beneficial organisms–bacteria, algae, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, and beetles — feed, digest and decompose the organic matter and in turn improve soil tilth, texture, aeration, drainage, and nutritional content. A single gram of healthy soil contains millions of organisms, most of which we cannot see with the naked eye or have even discovered. The soil story will continue.....stay tuned!