Flourishing Soil Ecosystems
Few environmental factors are more instinctively recognizable than biodiversity. A thriving ecosystem, such as an old growth forest or tall grass prairie, is teeming with life forms of all manner, from tiny insects to gigantic trees. Lush vegetation forms the bedrock of these ecosystems, drawing in moisture, emitting oxygen, and cultivating nutrition as the basis of the predatory food chain. The resulting abundance in biodiversity is highly visible above the soil. However, the vitality of the invisible ecosystem below the soil is the true foundation that allows life in the sunlight to flourish.
The process of photosynthesis is one of the first scientific concepts taught in elementary school, and for good reason. The remarkable ability of plants to absorb solar energy, water, and atmospheric carbon dioxide into their growth process is fundamental to life on earth. Remarkably, the plant only uses roughly half of photosynthesized matter for its own direct growth. The remainder is packaged for external consumption in the form of carbohydrate exudates at the plant’s roots.
When soil ecosystems are undisturbed, microbial communities around plant roots can flourish and multiply in population, diversity, and capability. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) form long strands and penetrate cracks in the soil too small for roots to enter, extending the rhizosphere to capture additional water and nutrients. Glomalin and other sticky substances secreted by the microbes help to form soil aggregate structure, increasing the soil’s water holding capacity and allowing oxygen flow for microbial respiration.
Microbes also form the basis for the predatory food chain in the soil, termed the “Soil Food Web” by Dr. Elaine Ingham. Fungi- and bacteria-consuming protozoa and nematodes are consumed by mites and springtails, which become food for insects and earthworms, which are eaten by mammals and birds, which become prey for larger predators. Excretion and bodily decomposition at each stage of the chain return minerals and carbon to the soil, and the cycle continues.
With an army of nutrient-building microbes at its (root hair) fingertips, plants are able to produce hormones and enzymes that bolster the growth process and ward off attacks from insect pests and diseases. To produce a healthy, viable progeny, and entice animal consumption to distribute and fertilize seeds, plants infuse fruits, berries, and vegetables with beneficial compounds such as flavonoids, antioxidants and phytochemicals. Size, color, flavor, texture, and nutrient density of these products are all increased when plants are able to procure the necessary mineral ingredients through their interaction with microbes. Crops produced in this manner are more desirable for human consumption and beneficial to human health as well.
If undisrupted, nature’s self-regulating power to drive the development process from root to fruit results in healthy soil microbial communities, healthy plants, healthy crops, healthy ecosystems, and healthy people. Ecosystems below the ground must be protected and nourished in order to protect the flourishing of life, including human well-being, above the ground.
- Jeff Lowenfels, Teaming with Microbes
- David Montgomery and Ann Biklé, The Hidden Half of Nature and What Your Food Ate
- John Kempf, Quality Agriculture
- Nicole Masters, For the Love of Soil
- Dale Strickler, The Complete Guide to Restoring Your Soil