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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: Soil Quality -- Humankind's Foundation for Survival

item Karlen, Douglas
item Doran, John
item Andrews, Susan
item Wienhold, Brian

Submitted to: Journal of Soil and Water Conservation
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: March 12, 2003
Publication Date: July 18, 2003

Interpretive Summary: The soil quality concept developed during the past decade is designed to help people with and without agricultual backgrounds better understand the importance of our soil resources. Herein, we provide a brief history of how the concept developed, correct misinterpretations that have been published regarding it, and discuss how the soil quality is being evaluated by soil scientists, agronomists, ecologists and others in the U.S. and around the world. A critical misinterpretation of the concept by those who have expressed reservations centers on a soil rating for plant growth (SRPG) map generated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. By presenting new maps with and without the use of irrigation to prevent water from limiting crop production, we correct this misinterpretation. We also emphasize that soil quality research and education are important because of the need to stop the degradation of our natural resources. We present soil quality as a tool to help land managers make better decisions by helping them to understand the physical, chemical, and biological effects that their decisions can have on soil resources. We conclude by emphasizing that soil quality research and education programs are needed because our world soil resources are limited but of infinite value for increasing food, feed, and fiber production while also preventing degradation of our water and air resources.

Technical Abstract: Soil quality research and education programs have increased exponentially throughout the world during the past decade, because desertification, salinization, water logging of soils, contamination of ground and surface water resources, eutrophication of inland and near-shore waters, soil erosion, and sedimentation are clear indications that current soil management practices are not sustainable. Our objectives for this invited research editorial are to present the scientific merits of soil quality research and to refute misconceptions that have been published regarding the concept. Throughout its evolution, the soil quality concept has focused primarily on one relatively simple question: How well is the soil functioning? To answer that question, soil quality researchers have stressed that both inherent and dynamic soil properties and processes must be evaluated using biological, chemical, and physical indicators. Some relatively simple educational efforts have been emphasized because the severity of the problems associated with poor soil management are often not recognized by the public or political leaders. To mitigate the apparent apathy, approaches ranging from simple scorecard and test-kit monitoring to comprehensive quantitative assessments and indexing using soils databases have been pursued. None of the soil quality researchers have ever envisioned that the concept would replace modern soil survey programs or diminish the importance of scientifically based soil management strategies. We conclude that the soil quality concept is useful for educating professionals, producers, and the public regarding the important functions that soils perform. Soil quality is not "an end in itself," but rather a tool for evaluating effects of soil management on a specific soil resource.

Last Modified: 4/22/2015
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