How do organic farming practices relate to soil health?
What is soil health? And how do organic farming practices relate to soil health? To answer these questions, it’s necessary to go beyond the usual focus of discussions about soil health.
The traditional perspective centers on an extensive list of chemical, physical and biological properties usually measured in laboratories after relatively short-term drills in which plots of land are subjected to contrasting regimes of fertilization/management.
While helpful in some respects, laboratory measurements lack context by not accounting for the function or role played by plants or microbes. This job is left up to computer models lacking reality checks with what’s happening in the field.
It’s obvious when you think about it: Soil doesn’t exist in a vacuum; plant roots generally penetrate the surrounding soil to varying depths, drawing in water and dissolved minerals, as well as gases and organic residues.
The earth also harbors a complex and diverse community of organisms that interact with plants, other soil organisms, and the environment to create the processes we call ecosystem services, including:
1) Nutrient Cycling: Plants take up essential nutrients from the soil and release others back into the ground. This process is mediated by microorganisms that break down plant residues into their parts, making them available to plants and other microbes.
2) Crop Pollination: The transfer of pollen from the male part of a flower to the female part is necessary for fertilization and seed production. Honey bees are one of many types of pollinators that visit crops to perform this essential service. In return, beekeepers and growers also benefit from crop pollination.
3) Soil Formation: The interactions among soil microbes, roots, and plant residues produce soil aggregates that give the soil structure and create an environment suitable for water infiltration and movement between soil layers.
4) Erosion prevention: Living plants anchor soils to prevent erosion caused by wind and water action. This function is so significant in some regions that agriculture must be prohibited during dry periods to preserve soils before drought-ending rains.
5) Water Conservation: Plants open tiny pores on their leaves called stomata through which carbon dioxide (CO2) diffuses into them for photosynthesis. At the same time, water vapor escapes from the leaves, cooling the plant. This process, called transpiration, is an essential mechanism for landscape water conservation.
6) Decomposition: Soil microorganisms break down organic matter into simpler molecules released back into the soil as nutrients. This process is essential for cycling carbon, nitrogen, and other crucial elements between plants and the soil.
7) Climate regulation: Soil microbes produce greenhouse gases (GHGs), including carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), and methane (CH4). Some of these gases escape the atmosphere, while plants take others up during photosynthesis. The net result of this microbial activity is moderating effect on climate change.
These seven ecosystem services are mediated by soil organisms that evolved with plants over millions of years. They work together to create healthy soils that contribute to our food production systems’ productivity, resilience, and sustainability.
Healthy soils sequester carbon (essential for mitigating climate change), increase biodiversity, help conserve water resources, reduce erosion and improve nutrient cycling for more productive agricultural production while stabilizing yields in extreme weather events.
Organic Farming Links Soil Health With Ecosystem Services
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Organic farming practices positively impact all seven ecosystem services because they rely on protecting new plant growth stages via an ongoing dialogue between plants and soil organisms rather than killing off pests through toxins.
This approach is just one aspect of organic farming methods. Still, it is critical because it helps build healthy soils that can provide the foundation for all other benefits that organic farming delivers.
In addition, certified organic operations are required to comply with regulations governing soil health and management, including measures to protect and improve soil structure, fertility, and water-holding capacity. These regulations help ensure that organic farmers are doing their part to maintain and enhance the health of the soil ecosystem.
The benefits of healthy soils go beyond agriculture and can be seen in urban areas. Parks, playgrounds, golf courses, and other green spaces rely on healthy soils to provide essential ecosystem services such as stormwater runoff control, CO2 sequestration, and climate regulation.
Whether we live in rural, suburban, or urban areas, we all depend on healthy soils to meet our clean water and air needs.
The value of soil health is becoming more and more apparent as we face the challenges of climate change, population growth, and dwindling natural resources. We must work to protect and improve the health of our soils so that they can continue to provide all of the essential services that make our lives possible.
Everyone can help as consumers, as citizens, and as people who care about their health and the future of this planet. In addition to recycling paper, plastic, and metal products, we can all take steps to reduce our carbon footprint by limiting our use of fossil fuels, including the food on our tables.
We need to make conscious decisions about handling and using our natural resources, prioritizing soil health.
Soil health is essential for the well-being of people and the planet, and we need to work together to protect it.