The Importance of Testing Soil Quality

Soils play a key role in ensuring that there is enough agricultural production to feed the world’s population.

The importance of soil fertility for agriculture was one of the first realizations that hit farmers at the start of the Agricultural revolution back in the 18th century. Slowly, they realized that good quality soil is essential for high yield, and sufficient production to sustain families, villages, and entire societies.

The difference between types of soils, and variation in soil properties became apparent- soil moisture, soil texture and of course soil chemistry determined what crops can grow in particular regions, and how much yield the fields will produce.

However, something that was not very known at that time is that soils are a precious resource, which is easily exhausted. Continuous mismanagement and exploitation due to lack of knowledge, led to poor soil fertility, loss of soil and as a result, drastic decrease in agricultural production. It became clear to most specialists, that core of the problem is in the chemical composition of the soil, and something had to be done about it.

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Source: FAO 

Fertilizers were introduced in the last century, helping farmers “fix” their soils, and boost their yield. Unfortunately, the general “rules” for use of fertilizers were not always applicable. Local weather, water and soil conditions were rarely taken into account, leading to major environmental damages, with little impact on production. On one hand, over-application of the unsuitable fertilizer led to severe nutrient leaching, which, in turn, caused contamination of equally as precious water resources.  On the other hand, under-application of the suitable fertilizer, resulted in poor production and major losses across many continents.

Fast-forwarding to recent days, and we see that not much has changed. Soils are continuously exhausted and miss-managed, we have lost vast areas that were once suitable for agriculture, and the tendency is not slowing down.

Our society is facing one of the biggest challenges- that of ensuring there is enough food resources for the world’s ever-so-growing population. The importance of having healthy fertile soils is now bigger than ever, and understanding what is in our soils through soil testing is essential.

In the last few years, soils were brought to the front line. Major international funding initiatives gave a boost to research on soil quality for agriculture. Some of the most prestigious international science journals, including Nature Communications, published articles emphasizing that accuracy in soil information could even be more important than climate, when it comes to estimating crucial agricultural parameters (Folberth, C. et al. 2016). Other lead agricultural scientists pointed out that farmers’ identities should in fact be “constructed” based on their soils in order to design the best management practices (Wahlhutter et al. 2015). Lead soil scientists pointed out how important it is to develop technologies for rapid soil testing, in order to make soil information affordable and easily accessible (Viscarra-Rossel & Bouma, 2016).

In order to make a change, we have to take clear actions.

Firstly, we have to continue raising awareness. Soil testing is crucial for increasing agricultural production, and this very important message has to reach farmers around the world. Regular testing of soil quality is the only way for them to know how best to treat their soil, so that in turn it can give the maximum yield they need.

Secondly, provide access to affordable soil testing technology. It is not enough to tell a poor farmer that she has to test her soil. Making sure that this is within her reach ensures that she will in fact listen and take the advice

And last but not least, we have to continue developing and improving. Every new technology, brings us one step closer to allowing each and every farmer to get to know their soil. The boost in agricultural production can only follow next.

Article by Mila Luleva