Soil Health in Agricultural Systems

Soil Health in Agricultural Systems

M.G Kibblewhite, K Ritz, and M.J Swift

Soil health is presented as an integrative property that reflects the capacity of soil to respond to agricultural intervention, so that it continues to support both the agricultural production and the provision of other ecosystem services. The major challenge within sustainable soil management is to conserve ecosystem service delivery while optimizing agricultural yields. It is proposed that soil health is dependent on the maintenance of four major functions: carbon transformations; nutrient cycles; soil structure maintenance; and the regulation of pests and diseases. Each of these functions is manifested as an aggregate of a variety of biological processes provided by a diversity of interacting soil organisms under the influence of the abiotic soil environment. Analysis of current models of the soil community under the impact of agricultural interventions (particularly those entailing substitution of biological processes with fossil fuel-derived energy or inputs) confirms the highly integrative pattern of interactions within each of these functions and leads to the conclusion that measurement of individual groups of organisms, processes or soil properties does not suffice to indicate the state of the soil health. A further conclusion is that quantifying the flow of energy and carbon between functions is an essential but non-trivial task for the assessment and management of soil health.