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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: Soil Quality: a Concept, Definition, and Framework for Evaluation

Authors
item Karlen, Douglas
item Mausbach, Maurice - NRCS, SOIL QUALITY INST.
item Doran, John
item Cline, Richard - USDA-FOREST SERVICE
item Harris, Robin - UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN
item Schuman, Gerald

Submitted to: Soil Science Society of America Journal
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: June 10, 1996
Publication Date: N/A

Interpretive Summary: Inquiries from policymakers, natural resource conservationists, scientists, and administrators regarding the concept of soil quality increased rapidly after the U.S. National Academy of Sciences published the book entitled, "Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture." This essay was written to share the perspectives of a 14-member Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) Committee on Soil Quality. It is not a final statement on behalf of the SSSA, but it is intended to stimulate further discussion. A definition for soil quality is provided. The definition and the parameters chosen for evaluation of soil quality must be based on soil "function" and must reflect the various uses for soil, including agricultural production, remediation of wastes, urban development, forest, range, or recreation. A method for assessing soil quality and some recent examples of studies that evaluated the effects of soil and crop management are discussed. Finally, a few key research and education needs are also identified. We conclude that soil quality provides an opportunity to address some of the complex problems brought to the scientific community by our rural, urban, and suburban clientele. We suggest that SSSA members should examine the concept and determine how it might impact their research, education, and outreach activities.

Technical Abstract: This essay summarizes 18 months of deliberation by the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) Committee on Soil Quality. We suggest that soil quality should be conceptualized as a composite picture that reveals the condition of a specific soil for a specific use. Another analogy is that of a three-legged stool, the function and balance of which requires an integration of the biological productivity, environmental quality, and plant and animal health. Direct measurements of soil quality are not possible, but it can be described by measuring various parameters that reflect the physical, chemical, and biological properties and processes. In simplest terms, soil quality is "the capacity (of soil) to function". Focusing on soil quality requires collaboration among all disciplines of science to examine and interpret their results in the context of land management strategies, interactions, and tradeoffs. Society demands solutions from science, so simply measuring and reporting response of individual soil parameters to a given perturbation or management practice is no longer sufficient. We suggest that embracing the concept of soil quality will enable us to more effectively meet the diverse natural resource needs and concerns of our rural, urban, and suburban clientele of today and the 21st Century.

Last Modified: 10/21/2014
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