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A new theory for soil health

Harris, James A.; Evans, Daniel L.; Mooney, Sacha J.

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James A. Harris

Daniel L. Evans

Professor of Soil Physics


The term “soil health” has captured the interest of government, and land managers, whilst the academic community has struggled to rationalise its use and wider benefit. It has proved a powerful tool in conveying best practice to a lay audience. However, the widespread adoption of the “metaphor” has resulted in calls for tools that facilitate the measurement of soil health, preferably quantitatively, and often as a single figure, for ease of use/communication and cost of monitoring. The insurmountable problem is that soil health is neither a readily quantifiable nor measurable object. Only organisms can have ‘health’, which manifests as characteristics of a living system—true of complex systems exhibiting “emergent” properties such as resilience in the face of perturbation. We pose the key question: is soil really a system capable of exhibiting “health”, or any other property emerging from a complex, connected, self-regulating system? We argue that if you cannot detect emergent properties, you are: (i) looking at the wrong dynamic parameter; (ii) not considering the entire system; or (iii) not evaluating at a system at all. We suggest that our focus should instead be on the relationships between components, complexity, and function. Using this as a basis for a new framework will allow us to assemble and align disparate threads of soil science into a cogent and coherent “new theory of soil health”, which is an essential and practical step forward for the sustainable management of global soil resources, across all land uses. Highlights: The term “soil health” is widely used, but understood and used in different ways. Health is a characteristic of an identifiable entity – usually an organism or discrete system. To identify and measure soil health we need to discover its system properties and their dependence on complexity and connectivity. The scale at which system properties emerge is currently unclear. We suggest a broad programme of research to identify dynamic emergent properties, especially resilience, in order to determine soil health.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jul 22, 2022
Online Publication Date Jul 26, 2022
Publication Date Jul 1, 2022
Deposit Date Jul 22, 2022
Publicly Available Date Jul 2, 2023
Journal European Journal of Soil Science
Print ISSN 1351-0754
Electronic ISSN 1365-2389
Publisher Wiley
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 73
Issue 4
Article Number e13292
Keywords Soil Science
Public URL
Publisher URL


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