The conceptual and empirical limitations of the soil health metaphor

Authors: Stephen Wood*, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies; The Nature Conservancy
Topics: Soils, Environmental Science, Agricultural Geography
Keywords: soil, soil health
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Nottoway, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


There is a long history of metaphors used to describe soil, from tilth to fertility, quality, and now health. These metaphors have important consequences because their adoption is usually associated with efforts to mobilize financial resources to promote the measurement of these concepts, as well as to promote management that increases the measurable properties associated with the metaphor. The aim of this talk is to address the empirical and conceptual limitations of the soil health metaphor, specifically as it is related to soil organic matter. Organic matter is widely considered to be the principle arbiter of soil health because when built up, it holds water and improves the physical structure of soil in which plants grow; when decomposed, it liberates nutrients that can be taken up by plants for growth. I will argue that contemporary soil science, despite decades of robust manipulative experiments, is unable to provide reliable targets and quantitative predictions for soil organic matter to achieve what is promised by the metaphor of soil health. I will discuss implications of this for harnessing recent excitement about soil in the general public to promote soil management rooted in nuance, rather than limited by metaphor.

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