Get the Scoop on Soil

The writer and environmental activist Wendell Berry once wrote, “The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all.” He went on to state, “Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it, we can have no life.”

Mr. Berry credits soil, or rather healthy soil, with a tremendous purpose — the cornerstone of life as we know it.

The Nature Conservancy understands the importance of healthy soil, and is working with farmers and an array of other private and public partners to promote sustainable agricultural practices.

Take a few minutes to explore the slides below to learn why soil matters. You may never look at a garden the same way again.

Isn’t soil just a fancy word for dirt? Most people use these words interchangeably, but in the science world they mean different things.

Soil is living and life-giving. It’s made up of a mixture of air, water, minerals and organic matter (both living and decaying) that is nutrient rich and capable of growing healthy plants. Dirt is essentially loose particles of soil that no longer support plant life and often end up unwanted on our floor or under our fingernails.

Soil is one of the most diverse habitats on earth, supporting an estimated quarter of the world’s biological diversity. There are more microorganisms in a handful of healthy soil than the number of people who have ever lived! More than 1,000 species of invertebrates can be found in a single square meter of forest soil. Together, these organisms interact and contribute to the global cycles that make all life possible.

Soil makes it possible for plants to grow. It’s estimated that 95 percent of the world’s food is directly or indirectly produced on our soils, which supply the vital water, oxygen and nutrients that food-bearing plants need to thrive.

It’s essential that we manage our soils responsibly if farmers are to feed the world’s growing population. Learn how The Nature Conservancy is working with farmers to promote sustainable practices like cover crops and conservation tillage.

Soil is crucial for clean water. It acts as a water filter, trapping pollutants before they can leach into groundwater supplies. Healthy soil can also capture and store large amounts of water. During droughts, the water can be absorbed from the soil by crops, and during heavy rainfalls, soil can help reduce flooding and run-off by slowing the release of water into streams.

Healthy soils can help reduce the impact of climate change by storing (or sequestering) up to 10 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. But, if soils are managed poorly or cultivated through unsustainable agricultural practices, soil carbon can be released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, which can contribute to climate change.

By restoring degraded soils and adopting soil conservation practices, there is major potential to decrease the emission of greenhouse gases from agriculture, enhance carbon sequestration and build resilience to climate change.

Soil is a non-renewable resource, which means that any loss of soil cannot be recovered in the course of a human lifespan. In fact, it can take 500 to 1,000 years to naturally build up one inch of topsoil – the layer that allows plants to grow. Some experts estimate that one-third of the world’s topsoil has already been lost due to a host of causes including deforestation, urbanization and unsustainable agricultural practices.

By promoting sustainable agricultural practices, we can help to preserve our healthy soils that are so essential for food production, water filtration, carbon sequestration and a myriad of other ecosystem services. Visit nature.org/workinglands to learn more.

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