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ARS Home » Midwest Area » Ames, Iowa » National Laboratory for Agriculture and The Environment » Soil, Water & Air Resources Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #361316

Research Project: Managing Carbon and Nutrients in Midwestern U.S. Agroecosystems for Enhanced Soil Health and Environmental Quality

Location: Soil, Water & Air Resources Research

Title: Developments in agricultural soil quality and health: Reflections by the Research Committee on soil organic matter management

item WANDER, MICHELLE - University Of Illinois
item CIHACEK, LARRY - North Dakota State University
item COYNE, MARK - University Of Kentucky
item DRIJBER, RHAE - University Of Nebraska
item GROSSMAN, JULIE - University Of Minnesota
item GUTKNECHT, JESSICA - University Of Minnesota
item HORWATH, WILLIAM - University Of California, Davis
item JAGADAMMA, SINDHU - University Of Tennessee
item Olk, Daniel - Dan
item RUARK, MATTHEW - University Of Wisconsin
item SNAPP, SIEGLINDE - Michigan State University
item TIEMANN, LISA - Michigan State University
item WEIL, RAYMOND - University Of Maryland
item TURCO, RONALD - Purdue University

Submitted to: Frontiers in Environmental Science
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 6/21/2019
Publication Date: 7/16/2019
Citation: Wander, M.M., Cihacek, L.J., Coyne, M., Drijber, R.A., Grossman, J.M., Gutknecht, J.L., Horwath, W.R., Jagadamma, S., Olk, D.C., Ruark, M., Snapp, S.S., Tiemann, L.K., Weil, R., Turco, R.F. 2019. Developments in agricultural soil quality and health: Reflections by the Research Committee on soil organic matter management. Frontiers in Environmental Science.

Interpretive Summary: In recent years, increasing attention has been directed at measuring the general quality of soil and its ability to perform useful services, also called soil health. Research on soil health has in the past been largely performed by university staff and other government researchers. Recently, however, there is increasing involvement of businesses in soil health investigations and applications. Here we discuss new and old issues that are currently facing researchers of soil health, especially when considering the increasing interactions between university and other government researchers in partnership with private companies. This discussion will help guide continuing development of soil health research. It is of value to all researchers of soil health and all staff who apply soil health concepts.

Technical Abstract: The North Central Education and Research Activity Committee (NCERA)-59, formed in 1952 to address questions about how organic matter and management practices could improve soil structure and productivity, draws on members’ shared history to comment on the science supporting soil quality and associated soil health assessment, with emphasis on croplands and with the goal of hastening progress in this important field. Even though the suite of soil quality indicators being applied by domestic soil health efforts closely mirrors the ‘minimum data set’ we developed and recommended in the mid-1990s, we question whether both the methods and means for their selection and development are sufficient to meet current and emerging soil health challenges. The rush to enshrine a standard suite of dated measures may be incompatible with longer-term goals. Legitimate study of soil health considers soil change accrued over years to decades that impacts on- and off-site function. Tailoring of methods is needed to effectively apply and interpret indicators for different soil resource regions and land uses. A complete focus on only selected methods and use of subjective selection criteria to identify indicators should be avoided, particularly when we do not yet have adequate data or agreed upon interpretive frameworks for many, if indeed any, ‘tier one’ biological indicators that are the primary measures within soil health assessment. While pooling of data collected by producer-groups is one of the most exciting new trends in soil health, standardization of methods to meet broad inventory goals could compromise indicator use for site- or application-specific problem solving. Ensuring that the data needed to assess soil health are generated through transparent and reproducible methods, and that they are available for public and private sector use, is critical as changes in our nation’s research landscape are shifting responsibility for soil stewardship from national and state backed entities to public-private partnerships. An expanded vision of coordinated research enterprises must rely on public-private research partnerships facilitated by appropriate methods for engagement. One of the biggest un-addressed challenges will be to conduct unbiased soil quality research within the type of normative soil health framework conceived by USDA over 20 years ago. Useful theory and models for ‘socio-technical’ framework development must be applied in a manner that does not allow privatization to compromise soil health research.