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Soil quality: attributes and relationship to alternative and sustainable agriculture

Soil quality: attributes and relationship to alternative and sustainable agriculture

American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 7(1-2): 5-11

DOI: 10.1017/s0889189300004367

Different chemical, physical and biological properties of a soil interact in complex ways that determine its potential fitness or capacity to produce healthy and nutritious crops. The integration of these properties and the resulting level of productivity often is referred to as "soil quality." Soil quality can be defined as an inherent attribute of a soil that is inferred from its specific characteristics and observations (e.g., compactability, erodibility, and fertility). The term also refers to the soil's structural integrity, which imparts resistance to erosion, and to the loss of plant nutrients and organic matter. Soil quality often is related to soil degradation, which can be defined as the time rate of change in soil quality. Soil quality should not be limited to soil productivity, but should encompass environmental quality, human and animal health, and food safety and quality. There is inadequate reliable information on how changes in soil quality directly affect food quality, or indirectly affect human and animal health. In characterizing soil quality, biological properties have received less emphasis than chemical and physical properties, because their effects are difficult to measure, predict, or quantify. Improved soil quality often is indicated by increased infiltration, aeration, macropores, aggregate size, aggregate stability, and soil organic matter, and by decreased bulk density, soil resistance, erosion, and nutrient runoff. These are useful, but future research should seek to identify and quantify reliable and meaningful biological/ecological indicators of soil quality, such as total species diversity or genetic diversity of beneficial soil microorganisms, insects, and animals. Because these biological/ecological indexes of soil quality are dynamic, they will require effective monitoring and assessment programs to develop appropriate databases for research and technology transfer. We need to know how such indexes are affected by management inputs, whether they can serve as early warning indicators of soil degradation, and how they relate to the sustainability of agricultural systems.

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