December 02, 2023

Five revelatory facts about soil

Amidst the wonders of space and the mysteries of the ocean depths, there's another equally intricate and crucial ecosystem—the soil beneath our feet. It's not just the ground we walk on; it's the very foundation of our existence. Through these five revelatory facts about soil, we reveal its hidden complexities and indispensable role in supporting life.

Hands holding soil
Hands holding soil in field

Let's start with a bit of history...

In the early 20th century, Wallace Fuller coined the term 'soil health,' marking a profound shift in agricultural thinking.

By 1936, the concept gained significant momentum when the USDA launched the 'Soil Health and National Wealth' campaign, highlighting the critical role of soil in sustaining agriculture and, by extension, national prosperity.

Fast forward to 1939, Guy T. Wrench further solidified the importance of soil health by connecting it to human well-being. He emphasized its fundamental role in sustaining life, biodiversity, and environmental quality.

This evolutionary journey in comprehending soil as a living entity has led us to adopt a holistic view today. It recognizes soil's indispensable role in maintaining biodiversity, environmental quality, and ensuring the very sustenance of life on Earth.

“The foundation of our food production is land, and it's limited. In 1961, we had 1.45 hectares per person for food production, which decreased to just 0.61 hectares in 2020. This trend highlights the urgency of maintaining healthy and productive soils.”

Anke Kwast, Vice-President Regenerative Agriculture – Climate Frameworks and Soil Enthusiastic

Fact 1: Soil is the foundation for our global food system

Beyond supporting life, healthy soils are the bedrock of our global food system. They supply vital nutrients necessary for plant growth, fostering a rich environment for countless organisms. This complex ecosystem, actively participates in the global carbon cycle, storing carbon and mitigating climate change.

However, continuous crop harvesting in agriculture, without adequate replenishment, leads to nutrient depletion, undermining soil health and jeopardizing sustainable agriculture and food security.

Recognizing that 95% of our food is dependent on soil, maintaining soil health through balanced nutrient management is critical. Yara’s crop nutrition solutions play a pivotal role in sustaining soil health, food quality and feeding our ever-growing population.

Hands holding roots of plant

Fact 2: Soil health is crucial for the success of regenerative agriculture

Regenerative agriculture hinges on soil health, across all of its five fundamental dimensions.

A healthy soil ecosystem boosts nutrient cycling, nourishing plants with organic matter and reducing the need for external inputs. Moreover, it promotes better water management, improving moisture retention and reducing erosion, crucial for plant resilience in challenging conditions like droughts.

Notably, healthy soils act as carbon sinks, aiding in climate change mitigation by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.

Furthermore, healthy soils support biodiversity, essential for nutrient cycling and disease prevention, further bolstering plant health and protection.

Finally, healthy soils demonstrate resilience against environmental stresses, ensuring long-term productivity and sustained nutrient availability for plant growth.

Fact 3: There are effective and efficient ways to measure soil health

- “It's important to understand that healing damaged soil is much more challenging and resource-intensive than maintaining its health. Preventative measures are key. It's more cost-effective and sustainable to act early and regenerate soils rather than continue with unsustainable practices until restoration becomes necessary,” says Anke.

The cornerstone to soil optimization lies in soil analysis.

To measure soil health, we rely on indicators of soil functions to assess its conditions and capacity to support ecosystems. Choosing the right indicators is crucial: they must reflect long-term changes accurately, be practical to measure and provide actionable insights, guiding us in making informed decisions about soil management practices.

Key indicators encompass a range of physical, chemical and biological parameters, offering a comprehensive understanding of soil health, leading to more informed decisions, adopting best practices, and more productive soils for generations to last.

Gloved hands holding paper to measure soil acidity

Fact 4: Soil is facing multiple challenges

Soil health faces an array of critical challenges demanding urgent attention.

Nutrient imbalances disrupt the equilibrium needed for optimal plant growth, leading to reduced yields and potential environmental pollution. Soil acidification, which affects both soil organisms and the availability of nutrients, requires careful management to restore equilibrium.

Loss of soil organic carbon, driven by climate change and agricultural systems where carbon is not replaced, diminishes soil fertility and its resilience. Visible soil erosion, caused by wind or water, impairs the soil's ability to support plant growth and contributes to water pollution and sedimentation in dams and lakes.

Contamination from pollutants, such as heavy metals or pesticides, presents serious risks to soil health, affecting soil organisms, plant growth, and potentially human health via the  food chain. Issues like waterlogging and soil compaction impede plant root development and nutrient absorption, while salinization or sodification, due to excessive salt accumulation, degrade soil and reduce plant productivity

Proactively addressing these challenges is crucial for maintaining soil health and ensuring sustainable agriculture.

Fact 5: Varied soil challenges call for varied solutions

Soil health varies by region, influenced by unique geological and climatic factors, as well as the prevailing agricultural practices.

Arid regions grapple with salinity due to limited rainfall and high evaporation rates, while humid areas face erosion and waterlogging due to excessive rainfall. Unique geological features and environmental conditions profoundly share soil formation and health in each location.

Weather patterns significantly impact soil health; droughts can dry out soil and expose it to wind erosion, whereas floods can cause erosion and change soil structure. Climate impacts vegetation types, microbial activity, and organic matter decomposition, affecting soil health differently across various climates.

Notably, each soil faces distinct challenges and limitations, requiring tailored strategies for effective soil health management. Recognizing and measuring the distinct soil health challenges each soil faces is crucial for implementing targeted, sustainable land management strategies.

Hands holding dry soil in field, in Italy

Committing to soil health: an imperative for our future!

As we unravel the intricate complexities of soil health it become evident that soil is not mere ‘dirt’; it's a dynamic, living resource, vital for our existence.

Collaborative efforts involving stakeholders across the food chain are paramount to assist farmers and land managers in nurturing soil health.

Recognizing this urgency, Yara is proactively involved in collaborative projects with a range of food chain partners and research institutions, dedicated to addressing the challenges facing soil health.

Let's pledge to cherish and preserve soil health, not just for our present needs, but as an enduring legacy for future generations.