Understanding the Delicate Balance of Soil Biology

by Mark Lovett on August 1, 2012

When I was growing up the word “soil” simply meant “dirt”.  It was the stuff I walked on while hiking through the canyons around my house, and the stuff that got all over my clothes by the end of the day.  While I understood the fact that plants and trees required soil to live in, it never crossed my mind that the soil itself was actually alive.

It wasn’t until much later in life, when sustainability became the true cornerstone of my thought process and I started visiting farmers markets on the weekend, that the complex processes at work within our soil became apparent. (it’s crazy down there!)

USDA Soil Food Web Graphic

Beyond the ants and earthworms that I was used to seeing, the soil plays host to a wide range of organisms, from simple bacteria, algae, fungi and protozoa to the more complex nematodes, micro-arthropods and a whole host of insects.  Once I came to understand how all these organisms interacted with the soil, each other, and the air and water, it became obvious that the soil is truly an amazing underground factory.

USDA Soil Food Web Glossary

What Does Healthy Soil Do?

  • Controls and regulates the flow of water from rain, snow melt and irrigation
  • Filters, buffers, immobilizes and detoxifies organic and inorganic materials
  • Cycles a range of vital nutrients, such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus
  • Feeds this nutrients and water to plants through a complex system of roots

Unfortunately, the old world methods of natural farming and crop rotation have given way to the industrial practices of mono-crop agriculture and the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides which in turn contaminates the soil, interrupts the complex process of soil/microbe interaction, and contributes to waterway pollution via runoff.

Pesticides and fertilizers can cause significant harm to public health and the environment. Most pesticides contain potentially toxic chemicals that can cause negative health effects such as cancer and neurological and reproductive disorders. In addition, pesticides can migrate into lakes and streams when it rains. When fertilizers enter a body of water, they can cause oxygen levels to drop, killing aquatic life and posing risks to other species.NRDC

What’s a Global Patriot to do?  The most basic plan of action is to eat locally grown foods produced by farmers who utilize organic methods.  This practice will not only provide you with the safest and most nutritious food options, but treats the planet with the highest degree of respect and protects the soil for future generations.

Valuable Online Resources

Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service

Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Books That You Should Read

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System

The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

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