by Naina Sharma
We use it all the time. But do we really know the vital role soil plays in our lives? Soils are mixtures of minerals, water, air, organic matter, and countless organisms that are the decaying remains of once-living things.
Soil is used for a variety of things. Soil serves as a medium for the growth of land plants, and it is essential for crop growth. Soil is also an important part of the building process. Soil compaction, which increases the density of the soil, is done as part of the building process. A lot of antibiotics include soil. Microbes created in the soil are harmful to bacteria, which is why soil is used in medicine. Medicines created by soil include skin ointments, tuberculosis drugs, and anti-tumor drugs.
Since there are so many uses of soil all around the world, the supply is starting to lose its quality. Poor farming practices drain soil nutrients faster than they are able to form, leading to the loss of soil fertility and degraded lands. “We still continue to harvest more nutrients than we replace in soil,” says Jerry Glover, an agroecologist at the U.S. Agency for International Development. If a country is extracting oil, people worry about what will happen if the oil runs out. But they don’t seem to worry about what will happen if we run out of fertile, and quality soil.
A reason for the drainage of soil nutrients is soil pollution. Soil pollution is the presence of toxic chemicals in soil, in high enough concentrations to be a risk to human health or the ecosystem. There are many potential causes of soil pollution. Industrial chemicals, lead contamination, radioactive metals, leaking underground tanks, improper disposal of materials, agricultural chemicals, salts, sewage, are all some of the causes. Soil pollution can be caused by natural sources. Ground pollution effects vary based on the specific type of soil pollution as each causes different environmental effects.
Expanded demand for agriculture goods generates purposes to convert forests and grasslands to farm fields and pastures. The transition might not hold onto the soil and many of these plants, such as coffee, cotton, palm oil, soybean, and wheat, might increase soil erosion beyond the soil’s ability to maintain itself. Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years. In addition to erosion, soil quality is affected by other aspects of agriculture, like compaction, loss of soil structure, loss of nutrient degradation, and soil salinity. The effects of soil erosion go beyond the loss of fertile land. It has led pollution in streams and rivers, clogging these waterways and causing declines in fish and other species. Some lands are also often less able to hold onto water, which can contribute to flooding. Sustainable land use can help in reducing the impacts of agriculture and livestock, preventing soil erosion and the loss of valuable land.
Soil has different harmful effects on human health. As said before, heavy metals could be in contact with the soil, which is a major human health concern. Heavy metals enter soils naturally through the weathering of rocks, but also through human activity. Heavy metals are present in mine spoils and in the immediate surroundings of metal processing plants. They are released into soils from landfills with industrial and household wastes.
Aside from metal, there are a few more effects on human health. Organic chemicals have been deposited into the soil. Soil contamination with organic chemicals is a serious problem in all nations. A large amount of these chemicals come from the agricultural application of herbicides, insecticides, and nematicides. Chemical pollution is a result of industrial activities, coal burning, motor vehicle emissions, waste incineration, and sewage and solid waste dumping.
Most organisms found in soil are not harmful to humans. Unfortunately, soil does serve as a home for many pathogenic organisms. Bacteria are the most abundant type of organism in soil, and they are found in every soil on Earth. Most fungi are saprophytes that absorb nutrients by aiding in the decomposition of dead organisms, but approximately 300 soil fungi species out of the more than 100,000 total fungi species are known to cause disease in humans.
Not all soil is bad for the environment. Soil, if misused, and polluted, will lose its fertility. Fertile soil is generous in nutrients necessary for the nourishment of a plant. This includes nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. It contains sufficient minerals such as boron, chlorine, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium, molybdenum, sulfur and zinc. These minerals improve plant nutrition. It accommodates soil organic matter that enhances the structure of the soil. This enables the soil to preserve more moisture, which helps it grow into a better quality crop.
The process to achieve fertile soil is a very intricate process. As plant material and animal wastes are decomposed by micro-organisms, they release inorganic nutrients to the soil solution. Those nutrients may then undergo further transformations which may be enabled by soil micro-organisms. Like plants, many micro-organisms require to use inorganic forms of nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium and will compete with plants for these nutrients, tying up the nutrients in microbial biomass, a process often called immobilization. The balance between immobilization and mineralization processes depends on the balance and availability of major nutrients and organic carbon to soil microorganisms.
With so many different problems in our world, people are trying to keep resources conserved, and protected. A way to protect soil, is a method called soil conservation. This is the way soil is prevented from being lost due to different problems that can occur, like soil erosion, for example. Another way to protect soil, is to protect forests. The natural forest cover has reduced because of commercial reasons. This cover provided soil protection. We could also reduce the use of concrete surfaces. Soil requires a certain amount of water to work. Concrete surfaces, make it very hard for water to reach the soil. To conserve soil, use the process crop rotation. To achieve this, you plant a series of crops in the same soil. This prevents the excess growth of pathogens, and the soil stays fertile.
In this day and age, if we continue to misuse soil, it will lead to great problems for us and our ecosystem. With so many more problems occurring in our world, we do not need another issue to top it off. We need to take care of our ecosystem and the resources, not depend on others to do it for us. The change starts with us.
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“Soil Erosion and Degradation.” WWF, World Wildlife Fund, www.worldwildlife.org/threats/soil-erosion-and-degradation.
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