The term soil health is used to describe the state of a soil in:
- Sustaining plant and animal productivity and diversity;
- Maintaining or enhance water and air quality;
- Supporting human health and habitation.
Soil Health has partly if not largely replaced the expression “Soil Quality” that was extant in the 1990s. The primary difference between the two expressions is that soil quality was focused on individual traits within a functional group, as in “quality of soil for maize production” or “quality of soil for roadbed preparation” and so on. The addition of the word “health” shifted the perception to be integrative, holistic and systematic. The two expressions still overlap considerably.
The underlying principle in the use of the term “soil health” is that soil is not just an inert, lifeless growing medium, which modern farming tends to represent, rather it is a living, dynamic and ever-so-subtly changing whole environment. It turns out that soils highly fertile from the point of view of crop productivity are also lively from a biological point of view. It is now commonly recognized that soil microbial biomass is large: in temperate grassland soil the bacterial and fungal biomass have been documented to be 1–2 tons/hectare and 2–5 t ha, respectively.
Some microbiologists now believe that 80% of soil nutrient functions are essentially controlled by microbes. If this is consistently true, than the prevailing Liebig nutrient theory model, which excludes biology, is perhaps dangerously incorrect for managing soil fertility sustainably for the future.
We can use the human health analogy and categorise a healthy soil as one:
- In a state of composite well-being in terms of biological, chemical and physical properties;
- Not diseased or infirmed (i.e. not degraded, nor degrading), nor causing negative off-site impacts;
- With each of its qualities cooperatively functioning such that the soil reaches its full potential and resists degradation;
- Providing a full range of functions (especially nutrient, carbon and water cycling) and in such a way that it maintains this capacity into the future.
Soil health is the condition of the soil in a defined space and at a defined scale relative to a set of benchmarks that encompass healthy functioning. It would not be appropriate to refer to soil health for soil-roadbed preparation, as in the analogy of soil quality in a functional class. The definition of soil health may vary between users of the term as alternative users may place differing priorities upon the multiple functions of a soil. Therefore, the term soil health can only be understood within the context of the user of the term, and their aspirations of a soil, as well as by the boundary definition of the soil at issue.
Different soils will have different benchmarks of health depending on the “inherited” qualities, and on the geographic circumstance of the soil. The generic aspects defining a healthy soil can be considered as follows:
- “Productive” options are broad;
- Life diversity is broad;
- Absorbency, storing, recycling and processing is high in relation to limits set by climate;
- Water runoff quality is of high standard;
- Low entropy; and,
- No damage to, or loss of the fundamental components.
This translates to:
- A comprehensive cover of vegetation;
- Carbon levels relatively close to the limits set by soil type and climate;
- Little leakage of nutrients from the ecosystem;
- Biological productivity relatively close to the limits set by the soil environment and climate;
- Only geological rates of erosion;
- No accumulation of contaminants; and,
- The ecosystem does not rely excessively on inputs of fossil energy
An unhealthy soil thus is the simple converse of the above.