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Value of Soil

Social issues and soil quality

Nutrient cycling, water regulation, and other soil functions are normal processes occurring in all ecosystems. From these functions come many benefits to humans, such as food production, water quality, and flood control, which have value economically or in improved quality of life. People can increase or decrease the value of soil benefits because land-management choices affect soil functions. Thus, it is important to understand what benefits we derive from soil and their value so we can appreciate the importance of managing land in a way that maintains soil functions.

What are the social benefits of soil?

People tend to emphasize benefits with the most direct, private economic value. In rural areas, this is usually plant growth especially as crops and rangeland, but also as recreation areas. In urban/suburban areas, the most direct economic benefits of soil relate to structural support for buildings, roads, and parking. Landscaping, gardening and parklands may also be valued economically.

Those are all on-site, short-term benefits. That is, the landowner who decides how to manage the soil also reaps the benefits (and costs) of those management decisions. In contrast, many important benefits are long-term or go beyond the land being managed. The landholders who make the management choices and pay the costs of managing land may not be the same people who are affected by the landholders decisions. Society should discuss the value of these off-site benefits and to what extent the land owner or society should pay to maintain these soil functions.

Public, off-site benefits of soil relate to the following resource issues:

Water quality of streams, lakes, oceans, and groundwater
Air quality, especially particulates
Greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.
Water flow and flood control
Sustainability of land productivity

Summary of soil benefits

Soil Function Benefit of Value to Humans
On-site Off-site
Nutrient cycling

Delivery of nutrients to plants

Carbon storage improves a variety of soil functions

Enhances water and air quality

Storage of N and C can reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Maintaining biodiversity and habitat

Supports the growth of crops, rangeland plants, and trees

May increase resistance and resilience to stress

Reduces pesticide resistance

Helps maintain genetic diversity

Supports wild species and reduces extinction rates

Improves aesthetics of landscape

Water relations

Provides erosion control

Allows on-site water recharge of streams and ponds

Makes water available for plants and animals

Provides flood and sedimentation control

Groundwater recharge

Filtering and buffering Can maintain salt, metal and micronutrient levels within range tolerable to plants and animals Improves water and air quality
Physical stability and support

Acts as a medium for plant growth

Supports buildings and roads

Stores archeological items

Stores garbage

Multiple functions Sustains productivity Maintains or improves air and/or water quality