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Understanding and Enhancing Soil Biological Health: The Solution for Reversing Soil Degradation

USDA-ARS North Central Agricultural Research Laboratory, 2923 Medary Ave., Brookings, SD 57006, USA
USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, 2110 University Blvd, Ames, IA 5001, USA
USDA-ARS National Soil Erosion Research Laboratory, 275 S. Russell St., West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA
USDA-ARS Wind Erosion and Water Conservation Research Laboratory, 3810 4th Street, Lubbock, TX 79417, USA
USDA-ARS Soil Plant Nutrient Research Unit, Natural Resources Research Center, 2150 Centre Ave., Bldg. D, Suite 100, Fort Collins, CO 80526-8119, USA
USDA-ARS Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory, Room 124, 10300 Baltimore Ave., Bldg. 001, BARC-WEST, Beltsville, MD 20705-2350, USA
USDA-ARS Land Management and Water Conservation Research, 215 Johnson Hall, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164, USA
USDA-ARS Grassland Soil and Water Research Laboratory, Temple, TX 76502, USA
USDA-ARS Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory, 1701 10th Ave. SW, PO Box 459, Mandan, ND 58554, USA
USDA-ARS Cropping Systems and Water Quality Research Laboratory, 269 Agricultural Engineering Bldg., University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211, USA
USDA-ARS Coastal Plain Soil, Water and Plant Conservation Research Center, 2611 W. Lucas St, Florence, SC 29501, USA
USDA-ARS Agroecosystem Management Research Unit, 137 Kiem Hall, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE 68583, USA
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
This author is deceased.
This author has retired.
Academic Editor: Marc A. Rosen
Sustainability 2015, 7(1), 988-1027;
Received: 13 November 2014 / Revised: 12 December 2014 / Accepted: 12 January 2015 / Published: 19 January 2015
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Enhancing Soil Health to Mitigate Soil Degradation)
PDF [2143 KB, uploaded 24 February 2015]


Our objective is to provide an optimistic strategy for reversing soil degradation by increasing public and private research efforts to understand the role of soil biology, particularly microbiology, on the health of our world’s soils. We begin by defining soil quality/soil health (which we consider to be interchangeable terms), characterizing healthy soil resources, and relating the significance of soil health to agroecosystems and their functions. We examine how soil biology influences soil health and how biological properties and processes contribute to sustainability of agriculture and ecosystem services. We continue by examining what can be done to manipulate soil biology to: (i) increase nutrient availability for production of high yielding, high quality crops; (ii) protect crops from pests, pathogens, weeds; and (iii) manage other factors limiting production, provision of ecosystem services, and resilience to stresses like droughts. Next we look to the future by asking what needs to be known about soil biology that is not currently recognized or fully understood and how these needs could be addressed using emerging research tools. We conclude, based on our perceptions of how new knowledge regarding soil biology will help make agriculture more sustainable and productive, by recommending research emphases that should receive first priority through enhanced public and private research in order to reverse the trajectory toward global soil degradation. View Full-Text
Keywords: soil biology; sustainable agriculture; soil health; soil management; soil organic matter (SOM) soil biology; sustainable agriculture; soil health; soil management; soil organic matter (SOM)

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This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited (CC BY 4.0).
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Lehman, R.M.; Cambardella, C.A.; Stott, D.E.; Acosta-Martinez, V.; Manter, D.K.; Buyer, J.S.; Maul, J.E.; Smith, J.L.; Collins, H.P.; Halvorson, J.J.; Kremer, R.J.; Lundgren, J.G.; Ducey, T.F.; Jin, V.L.; Karlen, D.L. Understanding and Enhancing Soil Biological Health: The Solution for Reversing Soil Degradation. Sustainability 2015, 7, 988-1027.

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