The soil provides “services” to me?

These “gifts from nature” come all year, not just at Christmas!

Just like water and air, soil provides “services” to all life on earth, year round. It’s a gift from the soil to humanity. Soil scientists have broken down these services into four categories, known as “soil ecosystem services.” In this blog post, we’ll explain the services, and try to give you an idea of what your life might be like if soil didn’t work so hard for you.

Soil as a gift

Soil is a gift that keeps giving year-long. Read more about how soil gives to civilization, and subscribe to Soils Matter! Art: P Scullion

Supporting Soil Ecosystem Services

These services are your “basics.” Without them, soil could not perform any of its other functions. Soil is a home – or habitat – to the world’s largest biodiversity. Fungi, bacteria, and fauna do many of their own jobs, but without their home – the soil – they would not survive. Soil also holds the nutrients plants need to survive, and provides the physical structure for the roots and stems that helps hold plants up.

soil, roots and corn plant

Plant’s root, such as this corn, grow into the soil and support the plant and provide water and nutrients to the plant. Source: FlickrNRCS

How would you thrive without your home or basic nutrition?

Regulating Soil Ecosystem Services

These are services that regulate the quality of our air, water, and other resources, and therefore provide controls on climate, flooding, and even disease. An example of a regulating soil ecosystem service could be the ability of soil to clean water by acting as a spongy filter! When it rains hard, puddles of muddy water can sometimes form on soil surfaces, or dirty water can runoff from roads onto soil. But slowly, that water sinks through the soil, and into the water table below. As that water moves down through the soil, it gets cleaned.

Soil also plays a role in cleaning the air we breathe, and the quality of our climate.

In the United States, most of us have access to clean, drinkable water. How thirsty would you need to get before you might drink muddy water?

Provisioning Soil Ecosystem Services

Soils provide many items for us – things we can use. Food for our hungry bellies (from our farms that grow the food!). Clothes to keep us warm (think cotton, linen and hemp clothing!). Lumber for our homes. Around the world, 80% of homes are made from soils.

Did you know that the major antibiotic, Streptomycin, was first isolated from soil? That’s because the bacterial group that makes it, Streptomyces, calls soil its home! From this first discovery, hundreds of antibiotics have been developed that save lives all over the world.

Provisioning soil ecosystems are made possible by adding together qualities of the supporting and regulating roles soils play.

We think the answer to “What would you do without provisioning services from soils” is pretty clear!

Cultural Soil Ecosystem Services

For millennia, cultures have had a strong link to the soils. Egyptians used soils for paint, as did Native Americans. Other cultures used soils as dyes for their cloth.

Songs and books have been written about soils, and many famous paintings include soils in their landscapes, adding to the non-material benefits that society gets from soil.

Do you read books, wear make up, use porcelain china…or any of the other cultural and societal items made with or about soil?

Soils are the source and foundation of many ecosystem services. Without soils, there would be no life. That’s why the Soil Science Society of America’s tag line is Soils Sustain Life!

Answered by Mary Stromberger and Nick Comerford, editors of the SSSA publication Soil Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital https://dl.sciencesocieties.org/publications/books/tocs/acsesspublicati/soilecosystemsservices

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