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A New Look at Soil Health: How Healthy Is Our Soil?

An International Research Team Partnered with Freie Universität Berlin Analyzes Current Research on “Soil Health”

№ 185/2020 from Oct 06, 2020

Soil experts and ecologists, including Freie Universität Berlin biologist Professor Matthias Rillig, have been analyzing the current state of research on soil health in a new study. While the topic is clearly of scientific importance, it is also directly relevant in terms of government policy. Agriculture, industry, and construction are all fields that need clear legislation and guidelines on the sustainable use of soil. The study argues that soil health represents a complex ecosystem and that this must be taken into account when making policy decisions. Soil health is currently still assessed and measured in terms of chemical indicators, even though science increasingly recognizes the importance of biodiversity as a key criterion for healthy soil. The authors therefore recommend introducing new, more meaningful ways of evaluating soil in terms of health, including the use of different indicators and statistics that can provide reliable measurements for soil functionality. Ecological factors, the researchers argue, must be weighted more heavily. The study appeared in the prestigious journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment (DOI:10.1038/s43017-020-0080-8).

As part of their study, the research team analyzed the existing literature on soil health. They compared definitions of what the term actually means, along with taking a closer look at measuring techniques and alternative concepts such as “soil quality.” Their study found that the term “soil health” has actually only been used more regularly in the last two decades. Matthias Rillig, who co-authored the study, explains that the linking of the two words “soil” and “health” already shows that the earth below us shouldn’t be seen merely in terms of statistics. Rather, it is a vibrant, living system that is home to countless, diverse organisms. The health of this ecosystem needs to be better protected, he argues.

The study demonstrates that in the past, soil was primarily judged in terms of plant production, or “soil quality” as it was termed. “But the much broader concept of soil health also highlights the importance of the soil for water quality, climate change, and human health,” Professor Rillig notes.

The study explains, however, that soil specialists still disagree on whether the concept is actually useful, as there are currently no precise criteria by which the health of soil can be measured, making it relatively vague compared to terms such as “soil fertility” for example. But findings also showed that soil health is already a familiar concept in the non-scientific arena, especially among politicians and in agriculture. This means that the study could act as a bridge-builder. “It’s important that researchers view soil health as a basic principle that can serve to further sustainability goals, rather than just an indicator to be measured,” argues Rillig. The authors suggest that because of its significance and growing importance, soil health should be recognized as a public good, and that international organizations should be tasked with developing the criteria by which it can be measured.

Further Information


Lehmann J, Bossio DA, Kögel-Knabner I, Rillig MC. 2020. The concept and future prospects of soil health. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment; doi: 10.1038/s43017-020-0080-8


Prof. Dr. Matthias C. Rillig, Institute of Biology, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838-53165; Email: matthias.rillig@fu-berlin.de