The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations Council has declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils. Soils have been receiving a lot of attention lately, because they are the basis for our food systems, fuel and fiber production, many essential environmental functions, and climate change mitigation. Unfortunately, soil health is under threat: the large-scale use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in conventional farming has been damaging soils and decreasing their natural ability to provide ecosystem services.
One of the benefits of organic agriculture is that it cultures soils to have higher biodiversity, an important measure in soil health. An article published in the journal Science found that organic soils had greater biological activity, greater soil stability, more biomass and higher diversity than conventionally managed soils. Another study published in 2014 in Agronomy for Sustainable Development found that conservation and organic farming techniques increased the number of soil organisms when compared to conventional farming.
Organic management is also important for carbon sequestration and building soil organic matter. The Organic Center has been addressing this issue by collaborating with Dr. Geoff Davies and Dr. Elham Ghabbour (pictured right), who head the National Soil Project, to investigate soil health in conventional and organic farms. Drs. Davies and Ghabbour have developed an innovative technique that is able to separate out soil organic matter into its components: humic acid, fulvic acid, and humin.
Looking at each of the pieces that make up soil separately is important because while fulvic acids are water soluble and fluctuate from year to year, humic acid represents the long-term storage of carbon in the soil. Because the application of synthetic fertilizer can strip the soil of humic acid, The Organic Center and the National Soil Project are comparing the levels of humic acid between conventionally managed soil and organically managed soils, which do not use synthetic fertilizer.
This will be the first time that the humic acid differences between management systems have been quantified and linked to soil health. Several studies have found that organic is better at sequestering carbon, so we expect to see higher levels of humic acid, which would mean that not only is organic better at sequestering carbon, but it is effectively locking away carbon in long-term reserves that would otherwise be in the atmosphere.
The Organic Center Project will be continuing through 2015, and the project is offering free soil analyses to all organic farmers who send in soil samples. For more information about the research and to learn how to submit soil samples, visit The Organic Center’s Soil Health website.
This year, celebrate the International Year of Soils with The Organic Center by helping us gather more soil for our research. This work will be used to communicate with farming organizations, policymakers, and the public about how transitioning to organic benefits the soils, the land, and the greater landscape of agriculture as a whole. //