Soil, the Diverse Factory of Life

This time, we’d like to start with a quote by Jonathan Davies, Global Coordinator of IUCN’s Ecosystem Management Program, “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...”(1)

Amongst scholars, there is a general consensus that a decline in biodiversity leads to a decrease in ecosystem functioning (2). To give a better description, “ecosystem services” are the set of ecosystem functions that are useful to humans. These services make the planet habitable by supplying and purifying the air we breathe and the water we drink. Water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur are the major global biogeochemical cycles. 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 and productivity, along with stabilization of the overall ecosystem functioning, 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, agricultural farming activities, and 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 Common Ground: Restoring land health for sustainable agriculture report by IUCN, “Different agricultural practices affect agricultural habitats in different ways and the impact on soil communities and the ecosystem services [i.e. agroecosystems] they provide may be positive or negative depending on which soil biota are affected.” (9). 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 irresponsibly to overcome specific soil constraints in crop production (10), does disrupt soil organic matter levels, which has a direct effect on soil diversity, and therefore on 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 in order to sustain plant growth in the long-term.” (11). Preservation of living organisms in the soil and providing the necessary minerals essential for their health is the simplest, yet the most efficient and effective approach for any management practice.  Healthy soil is an essential component of crop health and agricultural productivity. It is also becoming more and more clear that sustainable agricultural practices are the prerequisite to the golden global asset of healthy soils that produce the healthiest and most profitable crops.

As the food and agriculture sector is expected to provide healthy, safe and nutritious food, the sector must use natural resources more sustainably 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 technology to help sustainable agricultural productivity is by observing the impacts of different agricultural practices on soil biodiversity. By doing so, one can understand how soil microbial communities are affected by different applications of farming practices. Through the application of new technology, the impact of conventional (industrial), 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. 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.

Another way to utilize technology is by understanding the interactions among soil microbial communities. It is suggested by the scholars that microbial community structures and ecological functions are influenced by interactions between above and belowground biota and that 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 and simpler description, understanding natural microbial communities will deepen the understanding of how ecosystems function (14). Referring to the aforementioned quote, “The productivity of agricultural ecosystems depends on the stability of the ecosystem services provided by the soil.” (15), understanding this relationship will result in more sustainable and productive agriculture 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 sector such as farmers, Ag manufacturers, researchers, or agronomists to craft precise solutions for the farming land, as one solution is not always effective for different soils and crops. 

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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