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Biome Makers Blog

Soil, the Diverse Factory of Life

“Soil biodiversity – the variety of organisms which live in the soil, including bacteria, fungi – is the key ingredient that determines the fertility and productivity of land...”  states Jonathan Davies, Global Coordinator of IUCN’s Ecosystem Management Program (1).

Amongst scholars, a consensus is that a decline in biodiversity leads to decreased ecosystem functioning (2). To better describe, “ecosystem services” are the set of ecosystem functions helpful to humans. 

These services make the planet habitable by supplying and purifying the air we breathe and the water we drink. The primary global biogeochemical cycles are water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Disruptions of these cycles can lead to floods, droughts, climate change, pollution, acid rain, and many other environmental problems” (3).

As soil provides critical ecosystem services, especially for growing food crops, higher soil biodiversity results in an increase in ecosystem efficiency, productivity, and functionality, thus making ecosystems more resistant to perturbations (4).

As IUCN explains in their report, “the productivity of agricultural ecosystems depends on the stability of the ecosystem services provided by the soil.” (5). Conjointly, the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functions, if maintained and enhanced, aids in the optimization of agricultural productivity (6). For instance, farming practices such as no-till, minimum tillage, mono-cropping (monoculture) or mixed cropping (polyculture), and low or high inputs of pesticides and fertilizers (7) influence the soil microbiome activities and diversity deeply (8).

According to the Common Ground: Restoring land health for sustainable agriculture report by IUCN, “Different agricultural practices affect agricultural habitats in different ways and impact soil communities and ecosystem services. They may be positive or negative depending on which soil biota are affected. Thus, we can think of soil biodiversity and agricultural productivity as two sides of the same coin. Change one, and you’ll automatically change the other.

For agricultural production, any farming practice that uses external inputs improperly to overcome specific soil constraints in crop production (10) does disrupt soil organic matter levels, which directly affects soil diversity, soil health, and overall agricultural productivity.

According to FAO: “Without maintenance of biodiversity, the soil's capacity to recover from natural or anthropogenic perturbations may well be reduced. Similarly, maintenance of the soil's capacity to perform functional processes, such as those associated with nutrient cycling and the breakdown of organic matter, is important to sustain plant growth in the long-term.” (11).

Healthy soil is an essential component of crop health and agricultural productivity. Preserving living organisms in the soil and providing the necessary minerals for their health is the most straightforward yet most efficient and effective approach for any management practice. It is also becoming more evident that sustainable agricultural practices are the prerequisite to the golden global asset of healthy soils that produce the most nutritious and most profitable crops.

As the food and agriculture sector is expected to provide healthy, safe, and nutritious food, the industry must sustainably use natural resources to preserve the available land, water, and biodiversity resources. To meet these challenges and respond to opportunities, the sector needs to embrace innovative approaches and technology to improve productivity in a sustainable manner (12). 

One way to utilize soil technology to promote sustainable agricultural productivity is by observing the impacts of different farming practices on soil biodiversity. By doing so, one can understand how soil microbial communities are affected by various applications of farming practices.

As there is a well-defined link between soil biodiversity and agricultural productivity, the focus must shift to obtaining the maximum outcome while minimizing the disruption of soil microbial communities. By applying new technology, the impact of conventional, organic, and conservation agriculture on soil microbial communities can be distinguished and examined. Solutions could then be implemented into the existing agricultural management procedures accordingly.

Another way to utilize technology is by understanding the interactions among soil microbial communities. It is suggested by scholars that microbial community structures and ecological functions are influenced by interactions between above and belowground biota. These interactions can have a positive, negative or neutral impact on the diversity and community structure of plants and soil microbes (13).

At a more fundamental level, understanding natural microbial communities will deepen the knowledge of how ecosystems function (14). Referring to the quote above, “The productivity of agricultural ecosystems depends on the stability of the ecosystem services provided by the soil.” (15). Understanding this relationship will result in a more sustainable and productive, agricultural industry.

Technologies that help uncover these interactions, for instance, DNA Sequencing and Biocomputing, aid in improving yield by measuring the microbial biodiversity and the corresponding biological activity of soils.  They do so by charting the full extent of soil microbial diversity and building a more comprehensive understanding of soil microbiome interactions. These technological solutions allow individuals involved in this industry, such as farmers, ag input manufacturers, researchers, or agronomists, to craft precise solutions for farming land and building soil health.

 

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Bibliography

(1) IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature:

https://www.iucn.org/news/ecosystem-management/201806/conserving-soil-biodiversity-important-greater-agricultural-productivity

(2) IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature:

https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2020-023-En.pdf

(3) Oxford University Press Scholarship Online:

https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199554232.001.0001/acprof-9780199554232-chapter-4#:~:text=Ecosystem%20services%20are%20the%20set,the%20major%20global%20biogeochemical%20cycles

(4) ibid 3.:

https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199554232.001.0001/acprof-9780199554232-chapter-4#:~:text=Ecosystem%20services%20are%20the%20set,the%20major%20global%20biogeochemical%20cycles

(5) IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature:

https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2020-023-En.pdf

(6) Food and Agriculture Organization:

http://www.fao.org/agriculture/crops/thematic-sitemap/theme/spi/scpi-home/managing-ecosystems/biodiversity-and-ecosystem-services/what1/en/

(7) IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature:

https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2020-023-En.pdf

(8) Food and Agriculture Organization:

http://www.fao.org/agriculture/crops/thematic-sitemap/theme/spi/soil-biodiversity/agriculture-and-soil-biodiversity/en/

(9) IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature:

https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2020-023-En.pdf

(10) Food and Agriculture Organization:

http://www.fao.org/agriculture/crops/thematic-sitemap/theme/spi/soil-biodiversity/agriculture-and-soil-biodiversity/en/

(11) ibid 10.:

http://www.fao.org/agriculture/crops/thematic-sitemap/theme/spi/soil-biodiversity/agriculture-and-soil-biodiversity/en/

(12) Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development:

https://www.oecd.org/agriculture/topics/agricultural-productivity-and-innovation/

(13) ScienceDirect:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0929139308001650

(14) The ISME Journal, Multidisciplinary Journal of Microbial Ecology:

https://www.nature.com/articles/ismej200988

(15) IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature:

https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2020-023-En.pdf