Written by Dr. Alexandra Firth, Soil Ecologist
“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all … Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” –Wendell Berry (Poet, Novelist, Farmer)
History is rich with stories of life being molded from the soil. Greek mythology tells of Prometheus molding men out of water and earth. Ancient Egyptian tradition believed the god Khnum molded children from clay before placing them in their mother’s womb. Even the word “human” is derived from humus, the Latin word for earth. Soil shows up in modern pop culture too; the fictional superhero Wonder Woman was sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippoolyta. In short, soil is life.
Although often dismissed as “dirt,” soil is more than a medium where plants grow. It is a living, dynamic environment where biological, chemical, and physical forces interact to create the foundation of all natural systems. While we may not have literally been molded from clay, one thing is clear - life starts with soil, and thus it must be nurtured to thrive.
Maintaining and revitalizing healthy soils is key to sustaining critical ecosystem services that support life on earth. Healthy soils contain minerals, water, air, organic matter, and are teeming with microorganisms, insects, worms, other animals, and plant roots. Soil health isn’t just one of these elements, but rather the functional interactions of all constituents that keep the system productive and thriving year after year. Understanding these interactions is integral to harness the power of this critical natural resource.
Food Security & Human Health
With the human population projected to grow to 9.5 billion by 2050, immense pressure is placed on our soils to meet the food demands of a rising population. Unhealthy soils often lack nutrients and organic matter, which are integral for crop productivity and nutrition. Ninety-five percent of the world’s food supply is produced by soil. There is a growing body of evidence that healthy soils support crops that are nutrient dense, often containing important phytochemicals, many of which act as antioxidants that can boost our immune systems and aid in hormone regulation. This means that there is a direct connection between the health of our soils, and plant, animal, and human health.
Healthy soils are often high in organic matter, which helps retain moisture and reduce soil erosion. Soil organic matter essentially acts as a sponge; rainwater is absorbed and stored in the ground, where it hydrates root systems and trickles down to recharge groundwater. Improved water retention makes soil more resilient to dry periods and high temperatures. Healthy soils also reduce water runoff and erosion risk, which lowers the amount of sediment, chemicals, and nutrients from entering waterways, thereby protecting water quality. Because the Rocky Mountain Region’s agriculture accounts for more than 80% of the state’s water use, maintaining soil health to conserve water is important for our current and future water security.
Climate & Biodiversity
Managing our landscapes for soil health is an important strategy for climate change mitigation. Increased carbon emissions into the atmosphere have contributed to rising global temperatures, challenging our natural systems to maintain equilibrium while adapting to sudden changes in weather. Healthy soils store carbon, naturally removing it from the atmosphere and playing a critical role in balancing the global carbon budget. In fact, soil has the largest stock of terrestrial carbon, and can store almost two times more carbon than all the plants on earth! Healthy soils are also biologically diverse, which increases ecosystem resilience to environmental changes, like shifts in climate. Soil biodiversity extends its influence upward through trophic levels, supporting biodiversity and resilience across all ecosystem scales.
Farm and Ranch Sustainability
Soil health plays a pivotal role in supporting vibrant agricultural and rural communities. Healthy soils can enhance crop productivity by improving nutrient cycling and promoting strong root systems, potentially leading to higher yields and a reduced reliance on synthetic fertilizers. Moreover, well-structured soils with high organic matter improve water retention, reducing the need for irrigation and enhancing resilience to drought conditions. Farming and ranch management practices that prioritize soil health, such as cover cropping and reduced tillage, may facilitate cost savings from fuel and labor by requiring fewer inputs (i.e. fertilizers, pesticides) while supporting soil structural integrity, soil biodiversity, carbon sequestration. This fosters long-term agricultural viability while minimizing negative environmental impacts.