Soil health and sustainability: Managing the biotic component of soil quality

Elsevier, Applied Soil Ecology, Volume 15, August 2000
Doran J.W., Zeiss M.R.

Soil health is the capacity of soil to function as a vital living system, within ecosystem and land-use boundaries, to sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain or enhance water and air quality, and promote plant and animal health. Anthropogenic reductions in soil health, and of individual components of soil quality, are a pressing ecological concern. A conference entitled 'Soil Health: Managing the Biological Component of Soil Quality' was held was held in the USA in November 1998 to help increase awareness of the importance and utility of soil organisms as indicators of soil quality and determinants of soil health. To evaluate sustainability of agricultural practices, assessment of soil health using various indicators of soil quality is needed. Soil organism and biotic parameters (e.g. abundance, diversity, food web structure, or community stability) meet most of the five criteria for useful indicators of soil quality. Soil organisms respond sensitively to land management practices and climate. They are well correlated with beneficial soil and ecosystem functions including water storage, decomposition and nutrient cycling, detoxification of toxicants, and suppression of noxious and pathogenic organisms. Soil organisms also illustrate the chain of cause and effect that links land management decisions to ultimate productivity and health of plants and animals. Indicators must be comprehensible and useful to land managers, who are the ultimate stewards of soil quality and soil health. Visible organisms such as earthworms, insects, and molds have historically met this criterion. Finally, indicators must be easy and inexpensive to measure, but the need for knowledge of taxonomy complicates the measurement of soil organisms. Several farmer-participatory programs for managing soil quality and health have incorporated abiotic and simple biotic indicators. The challenge for the future is to develop sustainable management systems which are the vanguard of soil health; soil quality indicators are merely a means towards this end.