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6.1.4: Soil Properties and Human Responses to Boost Food Production

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  • Nutrients, pH, Soil Water, Erosion, and Salinization

    In growing crops for food, farmers around the world deal with local soil properties that we started to describe on the previous page. These properties can either be a positive resource for crop production or limitations that are confronted using management methods carried out by farmers. The first of these, a soil's nutrient status, is described in more detail in module 5.2. Regarding nutrients is only important to emphasize here that most nutrients taken up by plants (other than CO2 gas) come to plant roots from the soil, and that the supply of these nutrients often has to do with the amount of dead plant remains, manure, or other organic matter that is returned to the soil by farmers, as well as fertilizers that are put into soils to directly boost crop growth. Here are the other major soil properties that farmers pay attention to in order to sustain the production of food and forage crops:

    Soil pH or Acidity: Near Neutral is Best

    Most crops prefer soils that have a pH between 5 and 8, mildly acidic to mildly alkaline (to understand these pH figures, remember that water solutions can be either acidic or basic (alkaline), and that pH 7 is neutral, vinegar has a pH of about 2.5, and baking soda in water creates a pH of about 8). As discussed above under the climate and parent material sections describing soil formation, soils in rainy regions tend to become more acidic over time.& Soils with too low a pH will have trouble growing abundant food or feed for animals. Farmers manage soils with low pH by adding ground up limestone (lime) and other basic (that is, acid-neutralizing) materials like wood ash to their soils. As an alternative, farmers sometimes adapt to soil pH by choosing or even creating crops or crop varieties that have adapted to low pH, acidic soils. For example, potatoes do well in high elevation, acidic soils of the Andes and other areas around the world. Alfalfa for livestock does better in neutral and alkaline soils while clovers for animal food grow better in more acidic soils.

    Soil Water Holding Capacity and Drainage: Deep, Loamy, and Loose is Best

    Module 4 described the importance of water for food production and the way that humans go to great lengths to provide irrigation water to crops in some regions. Soil properties also play a role in the amount of water that can be stored in soils (for days to weeks) that is then available to crops. A soil that holds more water for crops is more valuable to a farmer compared to a soil that runs out of water quickly. Among the properties that create water storage in soils is soil depth or thickness, where a deep soil is basically a larger water tank for plant roots to access than a thin soil. The proportions of fine particles (clay) versus coarse particles (sand) in a soil, called soil texture, also influences the water available to plants: Neither pure clay nor pure sand hold much plant-available water because clay holds the water too tightly in very small pores (less than 1 micron or 0.001 mm, or smaller than most bacteria) while sand drains too rapidly because of its large pores and leaves very little water. Therefore an even mix of sand, clay, and medium-sized silt particles hold the maximum amount of plant available water. This soil type is known as loamy, which for many farmers is synonymous with “productive”. In addition to these soil properties, farmers try to maintain good soil structure (also called "tilth"), which is the aggregation of soil particles into crumb-like structures, that help to further increase the ability of soils to retain water. Soil aggregation or structure, and its multiple benefits for food production are further described in Module 7 on soil quality.

    Clayey soils, and soils that have been compacted by livestock or farm machinery ("tight" vs. "loose" soils), can also have problems allowing enough water to drain through them (poor drainage), which can lead to an oversupply of water and a shortage of air in soil pores (refer back to figure 5.1.1 and the roughly equal proportion of air and water in pores of an agricultural soil). Too much water and too little air in a soil lead to low oxygen in the soil and an inability for roots and soil microbes to function in providing nutrients and water to plants. Part of good tilth, described above, is maintaining a loose structure of the soil.

    In the face of these important soil properties for water storage, farmers seek out appropriate soils with sufficient moisture (e.g. deep and loamy, see Figs. 5.1.3 and 5.1.4) but also adequate drainage. Food producers also modify and maintain the moisture conditions of soils, through irrigation but also through maintaining good soil aggregation or tilth (see modules 5.2 and 7), and by avoiding compaction of soils that also leads to poor drainage and soils that are effectively shallower because roots cannot reach down through compacted soils to reach deeper water.

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    Figure 5.1.3.: The shallow soil with an oat crop is in a mountainous region that has likely suffered erosion, and features of the bedrock can be seen within 50 cm of the surface (yellow line), where the soil becomes much poorer. The total volume available to store nutrients and water in this soil is low. A pick axe head is shown for scale. Credit: Steven Vanek

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    Figure 5.1.4.: This loamy, deep soil is likely in a flatter region and has an organic-matter rich layer that extends to about 40 cm below the surface and water storage capability to beyond one-meter depth (numbers on tape are cm), an excellent nutrient and water resource for food production. Credit: Stan Buol, North Carolina State University Soil Science, on Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

    Salinization and Dry Climates: Hold the salt

    Dry climate soils have less rainfall to leach them of minerals. They can, therefore, be high in nutrients, but also carry risks of harmful salts building up as rainfall does not carry these away either. Salt-affected soils may either be too salty to farm at all or may carry a risk that if irrigation water is too high in salts or applied in insufficient amounts to continually “re-rinse” the soil of salts, then salts can build up in soils until crops will not grow. The way that arid soils are managed is a key part of the human knowledge of food production in dry regions.

    Relief and Erosion: Don't Let Soil Wash Down the Hill

    Soil slope and relief are described on the previous page as creating higher risks of erosion (Fig. 5.1.5). To address this limitation food producers have either (a) not farmed vulnerable sloped land with annual crops, leaving them in forest, tree crops, and year-round grass cover and other vegetation that holds soils on slopes; (b) built terraces and patterned their crops and field divisions along the contours of fields (Fig. 5.1.6). Terracing and terraced landscapes can be seen from Peru to Southeast Asia to Greece and Rwanda. Nevertheless, while sloped soils have been seen as the Achilles heel of environmental sustainability in mountain areas, the extreme elevation differences present in mountain areas can also be seen as a benefit to these food systems. The benefits arise because soils with very different elevation-determined climates and soil properties in close proximity, which allows for the production of a greater variety of crops. The simultaneous production in the same communities of cold- and acid soil tolerant bitter potatoes and heat-loving maize and sugar cane in lower, more neutral soils in the Peruvian Andes is an example of this benefit in high-relief mountain regions.

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    Figure 5.1.5.: Soil erosion in a mountain landscape. Credit: Steven Vanek


    Figure 5.1.6.: Terracing in a mountain landscape. Credit: Quinn Comendent, used with permission under a creative commons license.

    Soil Health: Understanding Soils as an Integrated Whole for Food Production

    We hope that you are beginning to appreciate that appropriate management of soils is emphatically about integrating management principles like the ones presented here as human responses, along with an understanding of the basic properties of soils, and also the nutrient flows presented next in module 5.2. Soils are very much a complex system, and managing them for food production and environmental sustainability means that we must understand the multiple components and interactions of this system. The way in which this is accomplished has been summarized as the concept of Soil Health, which involves multiple components that are more fully addressed in module 7. Soil health is an aspiration of effective management and means that management has maintained or promoted properties like nutrient availability, beneficial physical structure, and diversity of functionally important and 'health-promoting' microbes and fauna in soils along with sufficient organic matter to feed the soil ecosystem. These integrated properties then allow production to avoid soil degradation, produce sufficient amount of food and livelihoods, and preserve biodiversity in soils as well as other significant ecosystem services like buffering of river flows and storage of carbon from the atmosphere.

    3 This is not always true; Molybdenum, Sulfur, Boron and other micronutrients are sometimes found to limit plants, but the complexity of analyzing these is beyond the scope of this survey course.

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