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Soil Health

14 Surprising Facts About Soil

Soil is so much more than dirt. As you walk across a healthy landscape, a whole world is operating right beneath your feet. This underground world is home to predators and prey, inter-species cooperation, and cutting-edge medical technology.

Want to know more? Here are 14 things about soil that you might not know.

1. Soil is medicine

The soil contains some powerful antibiotics. For example, a soil bacteria called Amycolatopsis Orientalis produces the Vancomycin antibiotic. Recently, researchers found another antibiotic called Malacidin in the soil, which can fight antibiotic-resistant infections like Staphylococcus Aureus in promising first studies. Soil microbiology is a rapidly growing field, so you can expect many more medical discoveries to come to light in the future. 

2. The soil is alive.

Soil is not an inert, dead substance. A handful of healthy soil can contain more living organisms than human beings that have ever lived on earth. Admittedly, that might depend on the size of your hand. But according to researchers at Oregon State University, a single gram of healthy garden soil can contain a billion bacteria and several yards of fungal hyphae. Not to mention all the protozoa and nematodes! 

That extraordinary community of living organisms is known as the Soil Food Web, a term coined by the trailblazing soil microbiologist Dr Elaine Ingham. If you put a soil sample under a shadowing microscope, you’ll see predator-prey interactions like ciliates rocketing around the microscope slide as they hunt for bacteria. You might even notice nematodes sucking the life out of fungal hyphae with their spear-like mouths. (The fungal kingdom can get their own back by catching nematodes in traps, then digesting them). 

3. Healthy soil protects plants.

Many soil microorganisms have a symbiotic relationship with plants, including the crops we eat. For example, mycorrhizal fungi bring nutrients and water molecules to plant roots from further afield. Fungi can even send warning signals between the roots of plants to warn them of incoming pests or diseases

In a healthy ecosystem, microorganisms will coat every surface of a plant’s roots, stems, and leaves. This creates a barrier against harm because microbial predators can keep numbers of pest organisms and harmful bacteria under control.

4. Soil can reverse climate change.

Regenerating our broken soil offers a viable solution to the climate crisis. In the book Drawdown, 11 of the 25 solutions to climate change come down to how we farm and interact with the land. When managed in harmony with natural processes, soil can sequester vast amounts of carbon while producing an abundance of healthy food for humans. 

5. Soil can emit carbon, too.

Under conventional industrial farming practices, the soil is far more likely to emit than sequester carbon. Practices like ploughing (or tilling) and intensive use of inputs like pesticides and synthetic fertilisers undermine the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. Animal feedlots produce staggering quantities of greenhouse gas emissions, but integrating animals into healthy landscapes builds organic matter, sequestering carbon in the soil.

6. Healthy soil functions like a sponge.

Soil can protect us from climate disasters! Healthy soil is a living sponge that can absorb huge amounts of water in periods of heavy rainfall.  Water moves more slowly through the sponge-like texture created by living organisms, soil organic matter, and biological glues, which significantly mitigates the flooding of human settlements. When the dry season comes around, farms with a healthy soil sponge are less vulnerable to droughts, because water stored in the rainy season is available for many months.  

7. Soil is a filter.

The soil sponge purifies polluted water as it moves through the landscape. The biological, chemical, and physical filtering processes in healthy soil protect natural systems and human drinking water from heavy metals and chemicals

8. Soil is damaged by ploughing.

A freshly ploughed field is an iconic sight in the European countryside. But ploughing (or tilling) severely damages soil life. The plough disturbs organic matter, exposing it to oxygen, which triggers a massive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It also crushes and chops up vital organisms like worms and mycorrhizal fungi. It is now possible to farm without ploughing, even on a large scale, thanks to inventions like the no-till drill. 

9. No soil, no life.

Soil microorganisms aren’t just important for healthy plant growth and filtering water. They are also the base of the food web, which all life depends on. Thriving microbial life means more insects, birds, small mammals, and eventually, apex predators. When the soil is sick, the entire web of life falls apart

When the soil is sick, the entire web of life falls apart.

10. Soil is home to giants. 

Many organisms in the soil are smaller than the eye can see. But not all of them. The largest organism on earth is not a Greenland shark or Blue Whale. It’s a fungus in Oregon’s blue mountains, and it covers around 3.7 square miles!  

11. Soil can grow fast. 

Traditional soil science told us that it would take many hundreds of years for an inch of topsoil to form. But when people and nature work together, this is not the case. In the right conditions, several centimetres of topsoil can be grown per year

12. Women are soil heroes. 

Overall, women produce around 50% of human food. But in the developing world, this number is as high as 80%, even though women only receive about 7% of investment and aid. Empowering women with the same opportunities as male farmers would boost world food production by up to 20%!

13. Soil is a natural antidepressant. 

There is a reason that a spot of gardening feels so good. Some types of soil bacteria help the human brain release serotonin, working similarly to many modern anti-depressants

14. Healthy soil is profitable! 

It is not true that working with nature comes at the expense of farmers’ wallets. A 2018 study found that regenerative cornfields had up to 78% more profit than conventional fields. Profit was correlated to levels of soil organic matter, not yield.  

There are many more reasons that we are so passionate about soil, but those 14 facts are a good place to start! If you’d like to learn more about the work we are doing to regenerate agricultural land and secure supply chains, you can get in touch with Tom using the link below. He looks forward to hearing from you!

Tom Ludwig Soil Heroes Carbon Insetting Regenerative Agriculture

Tom Ludwig

Business Development, UK

Let’s talk about Regenerative Agriculture

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