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Soil health and global sustainability: translating science into practice

Research into the quality and health of soil contributes to knowledge and solutions towards agricultural sustainability and land use problems. "Interest in the quality and health of soil has been stimulated by recent awareness that soil is vital to both production of food and fiber and global ecosystems function. Soil health, or quality, can be broadly defined as the capacity of a living soil to function, within natural or managed ecosystem boundaries, to sustain plant and animal productivity,maintain or enhance water and air quality, and promote plant and animal health. Soil quality and health change over time due to natural events or human impacts. They are enhanced by management and land-use decisions that weigh the multiple functions of soil and are impaired by decisions which focus only on single functions, such as crop productivity. Criteria for indicators of soil quality and health relate mainly to their utility in defining ecosystem processes and in integrating physical, chemical, and biological properties; their sensitivity to management and climatic variations; and their accessibility and utility to agricultural specialists, producers, conservationists, and policy makers. Although soils have an inherent quality as related to their physical, chemical, and biological properties within the constraints set by climate and ecosystems, the ultimate determinant of soil quality and health is the land manager. As such, the assessment of soil quality or health, and direction of change with time, is the primary indicator of sustainable management. Scientists can make a significant contribution to sustainable land management by translating scientific knowledge and information on soil function into practical tools and approaches by which land managers can assess the sustainability of their management practices. The first steps, However, in our communal journey towards sustainable land management must be the identification of our final destination (sustainability goals), the strategies or course by which we will get there, and the indicators (benchmarks) that we are proceeding in the right direction. We too often rush to raise the sails of our ‘technological’ ship to catch the wind, before knowing from where it comes or in properly defining our destination, charting our course, and setting the rudder of our ship. Examples are given of approaches for assessing soil quality and health to define the sustainability of land management practices and to ‘translate our science into practice’."
John W. Doran
USDA Agricultural Research Service -- Lincoln, Nebraska; University of Nebraska, Lincoln
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Industry Focus: 
Food & Agriculture
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