What is soil health?
Soil Savvy March 2021
By Gurbir Dhillon
While the term soil health is quite pervasive in the scientific and agricultural communities, its meaning and scope are ambiguous. Dr. H. Henry Janzen and his colleagues in the Soil Biology and Biochemistry journal1 recently published an excellent article on this topic.
In light of some brilliant and thought-provoking points explored in the article by Janzen et al, this installment of Soil Savvy examines the meaning of the term soil health and its contribution to stewardship of soil research and dialogue in the agricultural community.
Soil health implies the capacity of soils to perform desired ecological functions (e.g., crop growth) as living and dynamic systems. Janzen et al define it as “the vitality of a soil in sustaining the socio-ecological functions of its enfolding land.”
The desired socio-economic function from a given land may, however, differ depending upon the land use for e.g., an agricultural field, a forest, or an urban garden. Thus, the soil properties conferring the desired functioning may change depending upon land use, and hence soil health may only be defined in the context of its ecosystem.
Furthermore, soils are a dynamic entity with changes in capacity to perform myriad of functions over long-time scales. Any description of soil health based on a momentary snapshot may be distorted without taking changes with time into account.
Thus, a concrete and quantitative analysis of soil health may not be possible. Despite the lack of numerical assessment, the concept of soil health plays an important role in promoting soil stewardship.
The term soil health resonates with researchers across disciplines as well as with the public to convey the importance of maintaining soils as a vital resource. More importantly, it provides a broader ecological perspective to soils as a natural resource and implies a dynamic resilience inherent in the soils towards changing conditions and demands.
1 – Janzen, H.H., Janzen, D.W., Gregorich, E.G, The ‘soil health’ metaphor: illuminating or illusory? Soil Biology and Biochemistry
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