Soil Conservation Guide: Importance and Practices
Soils in all climates, including Arctic ecosystems, are essential to the global carbon cycle. The BBC reports that the thawing of permafrost — a type of soil in the Arctic that holds an estimated 1.5 trillion tons of carbon (more than Earth’s atmosphere and forests combined) — is releasing both carbon and poisons, such as toxins and diseases, into the atmosphere. As this Arctic soil continues to thaw, it further accelerates climate change, creating a harmful cycle that will impact future populations.
To help fight climate change, farmers committed to sustainable agriculture, scientists, and researchers champion soil conservation, which promotes healthy, fertile, productive, and resilient soils. Soil conservation is essential for:
- Reducing climate change’s destructive impact worldwide
- Maintaining a balanced climate cycle
- Providing healthy ecosystems where plants, trees, and animals can thrive
- Ensuring healthy agricultural yields through sustainable farming practices
What is soil conservation?
Soil provides the nutrients essential for plant growth, animal life, and millions of microorganisms. However, if soil becomes unhealthy, unstable, or polluted, the life cycle stops. Soil conservation focuses on keeping soils healthy through a combination of practices and techniques. Individuals committed to soil conservation help ensure that soil is fertile and productive, and protect it from erosion and deterioration.
Threats to soil conservation
The primary threats to soil conservation are climate change and traditional farming practices, according to the United Nations. Traditional farming practices include the overuse of harmful pesticides that contaminate soils, slash-and-burn methods, and land overuse. Soil conservation aims to mitigate these threats.
The use of pesticides can contaminate the soil, as well as nearby vegetation and water sources, with harmful chemicals. In addition to contamination, chemicals used on crops can be toxic to important beneficial insects, such as bees, as well as fish and bird populations. According to a recent study about bird biodiversity in the U.S. published in Nature Sustainability, the grassland bird population has declined by 53% since 1970. Among the causes reported for this decrease is the growing use of pesticides.
Slash and burn
Slash-and-burn farming is the practice of burning and clearing forests to make way for farmland. This method kills plant species and displaces wildlife from their natural habitats. Land cleared using slash and burn is only used while it’s productive for farming. Once it loses its fertility, another patch of forest is identified for clearing. This unsustainable process repeats endlessly, preventing soil from recovering sufficiently to support healthy ecosystems.
Overuse of land can limit soil’s ability to play its part in the global climate cycle. For example, overcutting forests and woodlands for timber and overgrazing pastures can far outpace the natural regrowth of vegetation, subjecting soil to increased exposure to erosion. As a result, land can lose its arability and become a desert.
Soil conservation is important for sustainability
For those working in sustainability, an understanding of soil’s role can create opportunities to develop new solutions and promote stewardship of our environment. Why is soil conservation important for sustainability? Simply put, without soil conservation, soil erosion would increase. Soil erosion impacts markets worldwide, including $8 billion in losses due to lower crop yields and increased water usage.
Why is soil important? Soil is essential to food production. Crops need soil to grow, and farm animals need vegetation for feed. Conserving soil can help address food insecurity and promote healthy communities. Soil also helps to create a cleaner climate, absorbing about a third of the carbon dioxide that fossil fuels and industrial operations emit, according to the Climate Change and Land report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Healthy stewardship of soil can help mitigate climate change’s impact.
Soil conservation resources
For more information about soil conservation, consider these resources:
- Conservation Institute, “Soil Conservation — What Do I Need To Know About It? Learn About Its Importance”: Information about soil conservation, from threats to techniques.
- Conservation International, “To Stop Climate Catastrophe, Look to Soil: Study”: Questions and answers about soil’s role in the carbon cycle.
- Earth Observing System, Soil Conservation Methods: Benefits of Implementation: A discussion of soil conservation highlighting strategies for sustainability.
- IPCC, “Chapter 2: Land-Climate Interactions”: Findings and statistics revealing climate’s impact on land and soil as well as mitigation strategies.
- World Resources Institute, “The Causes and Effects of Soil Erosion, and How to Prevent It”: A deeper look at soil erosion causes and solutions.
What makes soil so important?
Soils help meet societal needs, providing food, energy, and nutrients. They also help minimize the impact of climate change and promote healthy ecosystems. Below are three reasons why soil is so important:
Soil is home to many living things
Soil organisms ensure sustainable food systems and mitigate climate change. Plants and animals rely on soils for food, shelter, and more. Soil is also home to fungi, algae, and unicellular and multicellular organisms that are invisible to the naked eye, such as bacteria and protozoa. As they move through the soil, microorganisms help improve drainage and soil structure, making soil more fertile and productive.
Soil is key to the carbon cycle
Soil plays a critical role in the carbon cycle: the continuous process by which carbon atoms travel between the atmosphere and Earth. For example, in breaking down organic matter in the soil, microorganisms release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and create nutrients and minerals that feed plants and crops. Soil also naturally absorbs carbon from the atmosphere in a process known as sequestration. Healthier soil absorbs more carbon, reducing the effects of greenhouse gases.
Soil’s essential roles
Farmers rely on soils to make food production possible, feeding people and livestock. Soil also acts as a purifier: As surface water travels through the ground to replenish aquifers, soil filters out toxins and impurities, making it drinkable. Soil also provides raw materials for infrastructure. For example, soil is an important element in making bricks for buildings.
Resources: Why soil is important
Consider these resources for insights into soil’s role in sustainability and creating a healthier world.
- Awe International, “Saving Our Soils for Future Generations”: An exploration of why healthy soils are essential for sustainable societies.
- Natural Resources Conservation Service, “The Heart of Soil: The Importance of Soil Health Principles”: An examination of healthy soil’s role in sustainable agriculture.
- Soil Science Society of America, “Soil Basics”: A deep dive into soil: what it is, its different types, and its function.
- Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, “Why Soil Organic Matter Is So Important”: A comprehensive explanation of organic matter’s role as the foundation for healthy plants, animals, and humans.
Benefits of soil conservation
Soil conservation contributes to sustainability and offers the following benefits:
- Improves soil quality and productivity. Increased fertility improves crop yields, reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, and saves money.
- Optimizes water infiltration. Better filtration increases water storage, preventing soil from drying out.
- Provides food and shelter. Soil-producing vegetation provides nourishment to all types of animals and offers protection from the elements.
Soil conservation also helps to minimize the following:
- Loss of fertile and arable land, impacting crops and livestock production, as well as the economy
- Pollution and sedimentation flowing in streams and rivers, affecting fish and other species
- Erosion and environmental degradation and desertification of land, potentially increasing flooding and negatively impacting forest ecosystems
Soil conservation practices
Soil conservation is key to environmental sustainability: It helps protect natural resources and watersheds, restores habitats for plants and wildlife, improves water quality, and makes soil healthier. Soil conservation also creates economic opportunity. Productive and healthy soil helps farmers meet increased demand for agricultural commodities from a growing global population, driving economic growth.
Tilling turns over about 10 inches of topsoil and allows farmers to plant more seeds with less effort. A downside of tilling is that it removes the plant covering, potentially leaving the soil bare, decreasing the amount of nutrient-rich organic matter, and reducing its ability to absorb water and retain nutrients. Tilling can also make the soil more susceptible to erosion. In no-till farming, seeds are planted in narrow furrows, eliminating the need to plow.
No-till farming protects the soil from moisture loss due to high temperatures because cover crop residue remains on the surface of the soil. The residue layer also helps infiltrate water into the soil and increases organic matter and microorganisms, further enriching the soil.
Terrace farming is an agricultural practice that uses terraces, or steps, built into the slopes of hilly or mountainous areas to create a water catchment system for crops and is commonly used in growing rice. Rainwater carries nutrients and vegetation from one terrace to the next, so the soil remains healthy. Terrace farming also reduces soil erosion and improves soil productivity in otherwise idle plots of land.
Like terrace farming, contour farming involves growing crops on hills, but instead of changing the structure of a hill, the farmer uses its natural slope. In contour farming, a farmer plows the soil parallel to the hill’s contours, creating rows of small dams that minimize runoff of essential nutrients, organisms, and plants, while increasing water infiltration in the soil. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that contour farming can reduce soil erosion by as much as 50%.
Instead of planting the same crop year after year on the same plot of land, crop rotation involves planning out growing seasons for different crops. This method of sustainable agriculture requires long-term planning, with crops changed every season. In addition to improving soil health and organic matter, crop rotation reduces the need for fertilizer and pesticides, lowering costs. It also helps prevent excess chemicals from entering water supplies, improving water quality.
Windbreaks are rows of trees and bushes planted between fields of crops, reducing the erosive power of the wind on the soil. Windbreaks also provide homes for living things. From an economic standpoint, using trees that produce fruits and nuts in windbreaks can diversify farm income.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines wetlands restoration and protection as “removing a threat or preventing the decline of wetland conditions.” Wetlands provide a habitat for living creatures of all types. They also act as buffers, protecting farmlands from floods.
Like windbreaks, buffer strips are designated areas of land planted with trees and bushes. Instead of protecting soil from the wind, their purpose is to prevent water runoff and reduce erosion.
Forest cover reestablishment
In areas where soil has degraded, the reestablishment of forest cover can improve soil and restore ecosystem health. This method provides shade for crops and is particularly useful for forest farming, which cultivates high-value crops, such as those used for medicinal purposes.
Earthworms are among the most productive organisms in soil. They digest plant matter, releasing essential nutrients into the soil, and their tunnel networks create air channels that help water move through the soil.
Soil conservation: A key component of reducing climate change’s impact
Unsustainable agricultural practices can affect soil health, which in turn affects the global climate cycle. Poorly managed soil can release excess carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Restoring degraded soil and using soil conservation practices in agriculture can effectively sequester carbon, helping build resilience to the effects of climate change.
Soil conservation also promotes sustainable and economic development to meet the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): 17 goals focused on providing a “sustainable future for all.” According to the European Environment Agency, seven SDGs directly correlate to soil conservation practices, including the following:
- SDG 6 — Clean Water and Sanitation: Through drainage and purification, soil helps to provide clean water for drinking and farming.
- SDG 13 — Climate Action: Through sequestration, soil can play a pivotal part in combating climate change by reducing atmospheric carbon.
- SDG 15 — Life on Land: Healthy soils are essential for sustainable management of forests, fighting desertification, and reversing land degradation.
Building the resilience of our ecosystems is critical to addressing the challenges of a changing climate. One key factor sits right under our feet: soil. Through soil conservation, we can work to minimize the impact of climate change and support the long-term needs of society.