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Productive Soils

The maintenance of naturally productive soils (e.g. soils that are chemically fertile, structurally sound and contain a high diversity and biomass of soil organisms).

 

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Service Category

Regulating Services

 

What are productive soils and how are they derived?

Different vegetation types prefer different soil types. Different soil characteristics determine growth rates.

A healthy living soil will be well aggregated and teeming with microbes.

Soils prepared for production in the Lockyer Valley, the fruit bowl of SEQ.

Productive soils consists of minerals, air, water and living organisms such as plant roots, microorganisms, insects and worms and the organic materials they produce. Productive soils take many thousands of years to develop and in the SEQ catchments are mainly derived from either basalt or sandstone parent material or a mixture of both. Most productive soils in the region have formed on either alluvial plains or under rainforest/wet sclerophyll forest canopies. Productive soils are a finite resource that are not easily replaced when destroyed or utilised in a different manner (e.g a car park). By providing the medium for vegetation to grow, productive soils provide the baseline infrastructure to continue to supply ecosystem services (e.g. a regeneration resource).

Productive soils contribute to the production of food, fuel and fibre and building materials. The importance of these products is evident in structured markets. Maintaining productive soils is important to lowering cost of production and minimising human inputs into ecosystems (e.g. pesticides and fertilisers). In conjunction with these provisions, a healthy productive soil provides continuous water and air quality interactions with the greater environment to maintain a suitable climate for people. Productive soils are developed in situ as land tends to be imovable, the resultant benefits however are diffuse in that air, water and climate are not limited spatially.

Table 1 below presents the magnitude different ecosystem functions contribute to maintaining productive soils (relative to other ecosystem functions). Vegetation cover is critical as it allows the recycling of organic matter and its accummulation as fertile topsoil (i.e. recycled nutrients from the whole profile build up in the dark topsoil). Organic matter contributes to improved soil structure, retention and better infiltration. Rainfall and debris protects the surface from water and wind erosion. Vegetation also provides shade and shelter which inturn creates important microclimates for soil organisms and reduces the drying out of soils through evaporative processes.

For nutrient regulation, insects and worms enhance this process and microbes assist with fixing nitrogen and improving crop nutrient uptake. Mycchorrhiza are soil fungi that colonise plant roots but also provide the plant with efficient phosphorus uptake from its hyphae (a particular type of cell in fungi) that are distributed more widely throughout the soil profile. Productive soils are well aggregated therefore gas diffusion is able to occur readily. Currently the issue of carbon dioxide (CO2) balance is topical and the soil regulates this process by sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere and storing the carbon in the soil in stable humus fraction. This action requires biogeochemical actions to take place in the soil and the better the soil health/quality, the more efficient the process.

Productive soils better filter contaminated water and break down pesticides and other chemicals. Similarly productive soils can also usefully assimilate uncontaminated forms of organic waste and treated waste water. Decomposition of the organic waste can release nutrients that can be usefully taken up by crops. The regulation of water through the soil profile can assist these processes, whilst stopping the soil from drying out and also contributing to suitable living space for thousands of organisms. Natural biological control is important to maintaining the right balance of these organisms.

 

Table 1:The relative magnitude (to other ecosystem functions) each ecosystem function contributes to Productive Soils.

Ecosystem Function Category Ecosystem Function 0
1
2
3
4
5
Regulating Functions
Gas Regulation





Climate Regulation





Disturbance Regulation





Water Regulation





Soil Retention





Nutrient Regulation





Waste Treatment and Assimilation





Pollination





Biological Control





Barrier Effect of Vegetation





Supporting Functions
Supporting Habitats





Soil Formation





Provisioning Functions
Food





Raw Materials





Water Supply





Genetic Resources





Provision of Shade and Shelter





Pharmacological Resources





Cultural Functions
Landscape Opportunity





 

ARE HUMAN INPUTS REQUIRED TO FACILITATE productive soils?

Human intervention (e.g. machinery and labour) are often required to use productive soils.

Consumer choice can affect market trends and how soils are managed.

It is pertinent to look at the level of human intervention and consider how that affects the output of the productive soil ecosystem service. Nature is effective in its management of productive soils, ecosystems containing high amounts vegetation and subsequent organic matter are often where productive soils originate. For example, plants require both Carbon (C) and Nitrogen (N) to grow. Decaying organic matter increases the C content in the soil. The soil has a C:N ratio so if C rises the correspondingly N is increased in the soil. Nature in its infinite wisdom ensures that equilibrium is kept.

In many cultivated and urban ecosystems modern agricultural techniques are required to maintain soil fertility (e.g. external inputs of fertilisers, pesticides and seeds/seedlings). It often requires significant capital investment, agronomic knowledge, diverse practical skills and has large operating costs. When introducing external inputs to the system, consideration needs to be given to how that affects the provision of the ecosystem service and the externalities that may be created. For example, with knowledge of natural system processes as described above, the land manager can reduce the use of synthetic N that if used in excess could have associated externalities of euthrophcation of streams. 

 

Are there any barriers to people receiving this ecosystem service and its benefits?

The greatest barrier to receiving this service are cultural values at the land management, consumer and governance points of contact. For example, one land manager may add Phosphate (PO4-2) to the soil to increase levels of Phosphorus (P) where another may apply a more ecological approach, a crop that hosts VAM (soil fungus) which transfers P from the soil to the plant root to exchange the nutrient for further use in the cropping cycle. The barrier to this change is the embedded culture and personal capital of the manager of the land resource.

The way change to accomplish positive outcomes for productive soils will be culturally driven by the community the service is embedded in. The consumer of the output can change the management practices by changing the focus of land managers by affecting market trends, the growth of organic agriculture could be one small illustration of this. Therefore cultural attitudes may affect management of the ecosystem service more effectively than scientific information. Due to the timeframe required to produce productive soils, for future generations, if this service is not managed sustainably now, the greatest barrier will be the complete loss and access to productive soils and arable land. This ecosystem service provides many benefits that contribute both directly and indirectly to the well-being of the SEQ community. The Constituents of Well-being this ecosystem service contributes to are presented in Table 2 below. Further information on these constituents and how ecosystem services contribute to them can be obtained by clicking on the links in the table.

Table 2:The relative magnitude (to other ecosystem services) Productive Soils contributes to each constituent of well-being.

Well-being Category Constituent of Well-being 0
1
2
3
4
5
Existence
Breathing            
Drinking            
Nutrition            
Shelter            
Health
Physical Health            
Mental Health            
Security
Secure and Continuous Supply of Services            
Security of Person            
Security of Health            
Secure Access to Services            
Security of Property            
Good Social Relations
Family Cohesion            
Community and Social Cohesion            
Freedom of Choice and Action
Social and Economic Freedom            
Self Actualisation            

 

HOW DO WE KNOW IF WE ARE DEGRADING, MAINTAINING OR IMPROVING productive soils?

SEQ Catchments monitors externalities that can come from underperforming productive soils such as salinity, acid sulphate soils, assays of land capacity for regional plans and resource manuals, and through property management plans. Farm industry bodies, government extension agencies within the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, university programs involved with soil/ecology and agricultural production/agronomy, local government community members and landholders all have the capacity to report on the sustainable management of productive soil if suitably motivated and resourced.   

Some of the forms of assessment that could be utilised are soil health targets (soil cover, C, P, N and soil pH) and associated programs, as soil health is a key component of maintaining productive soils. There are simple soil health test kits designed by Landcare or Queensland University of Technology or more definitive analysis can be done in laboratories. Observations of fluxes in numbers of soil macrofauna (termites and  worms) are simple indicators, ground cover and its composition/diversity (perenniality or annual) are another indicator and probably levels of production that is reported from producers also reflects capacity of productive soils. Aother important aspect of monitoring which reflects the capacity of productive soil to be sustainably maintained is the level of soil humus which is a C fraction in the soil.

 

How is this ecosystem service currently managed in SEQ?

Understanding and knowledge of ecological processes are a key ingredient to effective management of this ecosystem service. Organic, biological/ecological farmers use understanding of ecosystem functions to replace these external inputs to their cultivated or urban ecosystems.

No specific agency or organisation is responsible for managing productive soils nor is there any legislation specific designed for the sustainable use of this ecosystem service. For more information on this ecosystem service there are numerous points of contact including: CSIRO-Soil Division, universities (departments such as soil, soil micro-biology, ecology, agroecology, landscape ecology); Australian Society for Soil Science Inc.; interested landholders; SEQ Catchments; Landcare; Government Departments; community interest groups; agricultural industry bodies (e.g. Growcom, Agforce); consultants in biological agriculture; and organic farming bodies (e.g. Biological Farmers Association, Organic Farmers Association, National Association for Sustainable Agriculture).