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Soil Quality Basics

Soil quality is the ability of a soil to perform functions that are essential to people and the environment. Soil quality is not limited to agricultural soils, although most soil quality work has been done in agricultural systems. Soil quality definitions emphasize several features, such as:

Management affects on soil properties:

Soil quality assessments focus on the dynamic, or management-affected, properties of soil, such as nutrient status, salinity, and water-holding capacity. These properties are assessed in the context of the inherent capability of a particular soil. Go to Inherent and Dynamic Soil Quality for more information. To learn more about how management practices change soil properties, go to Management.

Essential services provided by soil:

Soils support plant growth, recycle dead material, regulate and filter water flows, support buildings and roads, and provide habitat for many plants and animals. Depending on the land use, many of these functions occur simultaneously. Soil quality assessments go beyond measuring degradation (erosion, compaction, or contamination) to focus on these soil functions and the processes that create them. Go to Soil Functions for more information.

Soil meeting multiple and sometimes conflicting goals:

Soil functions provide private benefits such as crop production or structural support for buildings. Simultaneously, the same soil may provide societal benefits such as carbon sequestration, water quality protection, or preservation of soil productivity for future generations. Evaluating soil quality requires that we identify and prioritize these benefits and pay attention to the interactions and tradeoffs among them. Go to The Value of Soil for more information on the costs and benefits of soil quality changes.

Other definitions specify what functions a soil performs or how to quantify or measure soil quality. For more information, go to Published Soil Quality Definitions.

Resistance and resilience to disturbance as

characteristics of a healthy soil:

The ability to continue providing essential services in the face of disturbance, whether natural or human induced, is essential to maintain or improve soil quality over time. A soil is not considered "healthy" if it is managed for short term productivity at the expense of future degradation (Doran et al., 1994).

To learn more about resistance and resilience, go to Components of Ecosystem Stability. Stability is also a component of agroecosystem sustainability. Go to Soil Quality and Sustainable Agriculture to see how soil quality relates to ecosystem sustainability.