<aside> đź’ˇ What is a healthy soil, why does it matter and how can we build it?


Healthy soils in agriculture, a way forward - Juan de la Serna

In these times of pandemic, we are reminded how the microscopic world can impact our daily lives. As humans we might feel disconnected from microbes but we have to realize that they are the backbone of our ecosystems, and dare I say of our economy. Our health is intricately linked to our microbiome [2] and the same can be concluded for plants [12]. Research of prominent regenerative agriculture experts indicates that soil microbes play an important role in plant nutrition and health, but how does it all work?

Plants are able to feed themselves through a nutrient cycling process called the soil food web, which is based on a complex network of predation between soil microorganism [8]. These predation interactions are fueled by the plants themselves, by investing massive amounts of energy in the form of root exudates (sugars, amino acids, organic acids, ...) that will feed the soil microbiology around the root zone and make nutrients available for plants [4,7,5,8,13]. Elaine Ingham’s research teaches us that, for optimal nutrient cycling to happen, various biological groups such as protozoa, nematodes, bacteria and fungi need to be present in certain amounts and ratios. One of the best ways to get this biology back in the soil would be through the application of high-quality inoculants such as compost and compost extracts. Plants also actively absorb bacteria in their roots through a process called rhizophagy, described by Dr James White, where plants disintegrate bacteria in their root cells and feed on their nutrients. They then reinject some specific bacteria back into the soil for them to reproduce, dissolve minerals and be reabsorbed again by the plant [15].

Soil biology is truly a fascinating subject and I have but scratched the surface of this complex universe for the sake of this article’s length, but I think we can at least conclude that, interestingly enough, plants are not vegan, as they raise microbial communities for their own benefit, but more importantly, for the whole ecosystem’s benefit.

The question remains: how can farmers transition from conventional to regenerative farming? Soil biology should provide all the nutrients plants need, but reestablishing the soil ecosystem takes time and could cause farmers to experience lower yields in transition years. Our main job as growers is to provide adequate nutrition for the plants to thrive and to optimize photosynthesis, which is the main driver of a healthy soil ecosystem [9]. You might want to consider to test your soil and balance your minerals in specific ratios, based on the research of William Albrecht and Carey Reams [3, 6] in order to address nutrient imbalances and to better your soil structure, which is needed for water infiltration and for the microbes to properly breathe [3]. Depending on our soil analysis results we can consider applying calcium, magnesium, sulfur, boron and zinc directly to the soil [1]. Other nutrients are of course needed and imbalances can occur. Fortunately, tools such as sap analysis and foliar spray applications can help us detect and address those imbalances on time [11]. With sap analysis we can monitor the plant’s actual nutrient content and design tailor-made foliar sprays that will provide the nutrients needed through leaf absorption [10]. As a result, we will have grown a healthy crop, that will have produced a lot of root exudates, helped store carbon in the soil, and that will have fed soil microbes making the soil even better for next season.

Obviously, it is not enough to understand the scientific background behind regenerative agriculture. We need to find a way to integrate those new practices into the context of the farmer. There is a need to spread the know-how and to connect like-minded people through dedicated channels. We would need a tool that helps farmers design their own transition plan, adapted to their context. We could even find an easy way for farmers to record and share their data, so that we, as a community, can get a better picture of what works and what doesn’t.

Thankfully, new initiatives are coming up to support the movement. Climate Farmers will soon be launching a farming social platform with a free content section and integrated courses. It wants to host specific discussion groups, and link farmers to farmers, consultants, researchers, institutes and more. Climate farmers also wants to help farmers measure farming ecosystem services, package them into certificates and present them to companies and institutions that wish to promote a healthier agricultural model.

As many movements in the past, the regenerative movement will be built from the bottom up. We must show our politicians that regenerative agriculture is a scalable and realistic alternative to the status quo and make the change an inevitability.

We should also be humble enough to look at ourselves and on the impacts of our own consumption. Are we ready to support our farmers by paying the real cost of food? Because someone, somewhere will be paying for it. In the end, we need to decide what system we want to promote.

Don’t forget to vote, with your money that is.

Juan de la Serna



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