The ultimate success, or failure, of a remediation project inevitably comes back to the soil. A depleted or imbalanced patch of earth can receive ‘band-aid’ solutions, such as routine tilling or broad applications of fertilizers, but these antiquated land use practices are not addressing the root cause of the problem. We’ve expanded previously on the topic of microbial health within our soils and the important role these micro-organisms have on an area’s ability to sustain plant life. Another aspect pertaining to the very important topic of soil health is the basic chemistry of the soil itself.
The base structure of most soil is weathered and broken-down rocks, and thus will have a range of minerals present based on the class of the parent matter. Other instances of source material can be glacial drift or water deposited material. Mineral chemical compositions of the soil are only half of the picture when trying to understand the many interactions that take place in a balanced and sustainable soil profile.
The primary nutrients of concern for soil-based ecosystems are carbon, nitrogen, and to a lesser degree phosphorus. Although there isn’t a single entirely accurate method to determine the bioavailability of these various nutrients taken up by vegetation growing in them, visual examination of soils and basic testing can provide valuable insight into the nutrient estimation of whatever soils one is working with. A soils overall texture, level of incorporated organic matter, and basic pH testing are simple places to start for investigating overall soil health. For many people, unless they’re working with soil that is in great need of remediation due to some recent or lingering contamination, gently aerating and top dressing an area with organic compost before planting will usually be enough.
Issues we come across frequently due to the nature of our work is salt impacted soils, but modern systems and processes used today in agriculture and other land-use related industries have measurable effects on the molecular makeup of the soil itself. As environmental factors continue to change, coupled with estimated population growth, food production systems already strained will have to become even more efficient and productive. It is critical to view balanced soils as a precious, and somewhat finite resource, that can be the difference between land that can sustain an ecosystem and land that cannot.
Overall loss of soil organic matter (SOM) and soil aggregates are common features of unsustainable land use practices. Not only that, the quality of the SOM matters as well, considering the many biological functions that are dependent on the availability of that organic matter. Organic matter inputs influence soil compactibility, water holding capacity, permeability and erodibility, as well as supporting aggregate stability. As mentioned above, soils we work with often have been affected by salt. Produced water, a by-product of the oil and gas industry, is an example of an anthropogenic contamination, but naturally occurring saline soils are perhaps more common than people think. Given that much of North America was once covered by vast oceans, the prehistoric sea life that eventually created many of the resources we mine and drill for also means that the concentrated sea water they existed in persists as well. Salt impacted soils can be difficult to remediate because of the influence excess salts have on the chemistry of the soil itself. Plants absorb water into their roots through osmosis, a process controlled by the relationship between the salts present in the soil and the water contained within the plant itself. When the amount of dissolved solids in the soil reach a certain threshold, water is drawn out of the plants instead of in, resulting in either stunting or death. Salinity also has an impact on nitrogen uptake, an incredibly important nutrient for vegetative growth and overall plant health. For growers in areas with naturally occurring saline seeps, this can pose a huge threat to crop yields. Coupled with more persistent drought conditions in areas historically used for agricultural production, those salts can become even more concentrated due to evaporation and certain irrigation methods. Because saline impacted soils are usually inhospitable to most plant life, large bare areas of soil are common and very susceptible to erosion.
‘Soil Security’ is a concept, growing in support, to maintain and improve the worlds remaining soil resource for food and fiber production, preserve biodiversity, and support human health. This view approaches the mounting issue of depleted soils from both a physical perspective, as well as a socio-economic perspective. The need for sustainable land use management is more important than ever, and society at large will only begin to advocate for protecting soils when they understand how connected, and dependent, we are to the health of the environment around us. Nothing done in nature acts as an isolated event. Everything from agricultural amendments and industry run-off to debris left on our roads and highway can very easily be washed into our waterways, exponentially expanding the areas suffering from imbalance or contamination.
Having measures in place to efficiently monitor and predict these factors of soil chemistry, but to also remediate imbalances as they occur, is a large pillar of Genus’s work. We are creating procedures and tools to better equip individuals and groups to not only restore impacted areas, but to prevent impacts happening in the first place. Our soils are precious, so much of our health depends on them, and we are excited to be able to add to the growing movement of protecting them.