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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: Defining and Assessing Soil Health and Sustainable Productivity

Authors
item Doran, John
item Safley, M - USDA NRCS WASH DC

Submitted to: Book Chapter
Publication Type: Book / Chapter
Publication Acceptance Date: January 20, 1997
Publication Date: N/A

Interpretive Summary: Increasing human populations, decreasing resources, social instability, and environmental degradation pose serious threats to the natural processes that sustain the global ecosphere and life on earth. Agriculture, and society in general, are challenged to develop strategies for sustainability that conserve non-renewable natural resources such as soil, enhance use of renewable resources, and are aligned with the natural processes that sustain life on earth. Soil is a dynamic, living resource whose condition is vital to both the production of food and fiber and to global balance and ecosystem function; or in essence, to the sustainability of life on earth. The quality and health of soils determine agricultural sustainability, the quality of air and water environments and, as a consequence of both, plant, animal, and human health as well. In its broadest sense, soil health can be defined as the ability of soil to perform or function according to its potential, and changes over time due to human use and management or to natural events. In this sense, soil health is enhanced by management and land-use decisions that weigh the multiple functions of soil and is impaired by decisions which focus only on single functions, such as crop productivity. The challenge ahead in sustaining life on planet earth will require new vision, holistic approaches for ecosystem management, and a renewed partnership between science and society.

Technical Abstract: Soil is a finite, living resource that acts as an interface between agriculture and the environment and is vital to global function. Soil health can be defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living system, within ecosystem and land-use boundaries, to sustain biological productivity, maintain the quality of air and water environments, and promote plant, animal, and human health. To assure the sustainability of agricultural management systems, producers and land managers must be included as active participants in the quantitative and qualitative assessment of soil health. Present research and education needs critical to assessment and enhancement of soil quality/health include: (1) Coordinated development of standards for soil quality/health by national and local agencies, and farming interest groups to assess sustainability changes with time; (2) Development of practical approaches and tools for on-site assessment of soil quality/health by producers, researchers, extension, conservationists, and environmental monitors that can also be used by resource managers and policy makers to determine the sustainability of land management practices. Soil health, by its broadest definition, is inseparable from issues of sustainability. The challenge before us is to develop holistic approaches for assessing soil health that are useful to producers, specialists, and policy makers in identifying profitable environmentally benign agricultural management systems which will sustain our soil resources for future generations.

Last Modified: 10/23/2014
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