What kind of life is going on in the soil? And does it influence our life above the soil, such as our health? The uppermost layers of the soil contain an unimaginably large quantity of life in the form of, for example, worms, spiders, insects and bacteria. Soil life means that the soil is important to others, for example in terms of the production of (food) crops, as a place to live and build, to purify water and break down contaminants.
The soil is alive
The soil is alive because all kinds of soil organisms and soil processes ensure that plants and animals can grow, the climate stays pleasant, farmers can produce, ornamental plants adorn our gardens and natural systems can develop into a beautiful and varied landscape with a certain robustness. It takes decades to create an entire soil system and the process carries on for thousands of years. For soil users the soil is actually a natural resource which is scarcely renewable.
The 'Green Engine'
We sometimes refer to soil life as the environment's 'green engine'. Just as in a tropical rainforest, the plants and animals (organisms) coexist in a subtle balance and are strongly interrelated. It there are too many or too few of a certain organism, this will affect other species. The soil is then unbalanced and the green motor will start to sputter and, in a worst-case scenario, will break down. This all leads to extra expense, for example in relation to water purification, the use of chemical fertilisers in order to be able to feed crops and pesticides to combat pests.
The production of (food) crops
Food such as vegetables, fruit, nuts and mushrooms largely come from the soil. The quality of these crops is important for our health. Crops that have a certain robustness (vital) and qualitatively healthy crops come from healthy soils in which there is so much air and soil life that all the nutrients that are important for the plant can be created. A healthy soil requires (almost) no fertilisers to grow food crops because the soil life can do that itself.
A place to live and build on
A healthy soil covered in greenery makes the living environment more attractive to the people who live there. An open soil which is covered with plants and trees, such as a park or lawn, helps to cool buildings and residents on hot sunny days. The open soil also creates space to engage in leisure pursuits, to play and to learn. This increases the residents' well-being. We build houses on the soil. A fertile soil contains organisms that keep the soil aerated, as a result of which water can easily pass through it.
The purification of water and the breakdown of contaminants
In the uppermost layer of the soil some bacteria and mould clean the soil and groundwater and surface water. As a result the water used for drinking water and nature reserves and residential areas is automatically cleaned. This helps to keep the living environment clean and to provide clean water for people and it is therefore important for public health.
The soil is a source of new technology
The soil is also a source of new producers of antibiotics. The soil bacteria which belong to the streptomycetes genus produce medicines. They produce antibiotics that can be used to cure people.
Neglecting the soil
If soil it is not properly maintained, its quality will deteriorate. We refer to this as soil degradation. Soil degradation has (inter)national effects on people's health. Import of food from countries where the legislation and regulations in this field are complied with less can lead to contaminated soils and (ground)water abroad. In addition, hazardous substances can spread across national borders via wind erosion and have a detrimental effect on our health because we inhale particulate matter or via our food.
Soil policy is focused on a more aware use and more sustainable soil management. In 1992 the Netherlands signed the Rio De Janeiro Convention on Biological Diversity, together with 186 other countries including the EU. The reason for this was the increasingly poor condition of our (soil) ecosystems. The countries promised to protect the biodiversity in their own country and also to take suitable measures to support the protection of the biodiversity in developing countries.
The political focus on the issue of ecosystem services has been rapidly increasing during the last two years, thanks to the impulse provided by the new European Biodiversity Strategy, the Europa2020 strategy and the review of the Common Agricultural Policy (GLB) 2014-2020.
Biodiversity in the soil is an important ecosystem service for producing food, cleaning the soil and retaining water and as a source for new technology. The Soil Policy Document of the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment announced a transition to sustainable soil management, including the development of supporting instruments.
- Use the soil sustainably so that it can recover quickly after use. Put briefly sustainable soil use means optimising the possible uses of the soil without damaging or depleting it.
- Buy products which have been produced with respect for the soil, such as organically grown vegetables, fruit and flowers.
- People with vegetable gardens and other gardeners can stop using fertilisers and pesticides and use self-produced or organic compost.
- You should not cover the soil with tiles or root-proof membrane but plant plants and trees and not remove fallen leaves and plant residues. These serve as food for the soil life and will ensure that you can enjoy a living garden.
- Avoid unnecessary use of pesticides. A good fertilizer for a healthy soil.