Is soil sterile? Dead? On Building Soils for Better Crops

Building Soils for Better Crops

Finding soil’s soul and shadow is difficult, but not impossible. Science and farmer experience make it possible. The finding, found through science and labor, helps soil smile, and sustain life and economy. Building Soils for Better Crops discusses soil, solves that “riddle” that kills soil’s life, and finds that “magic” that brings on earth blooming crops in a sustainable manner.

Today, ignoring the soil-question is impossible. “Soil pollution”, says a 2021-report by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “is invisible to the human eye, but it compromises the quality of the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe and puts human and environmental health at risk.” (FAO and UNEP, Global Assessment of Soil Pollution – Summary for Policy Makers, Rome, 2021,, henceforth GASP)

Fred Magdoff and Harold Van Es in their more than 400 page-Building Soils for Better Crops (4th edition) discuss soil’s different aspects in such a manner that it helps learners, practitioners – small, medium, large farmers – in fighting soil pollution, and invigorating life in dead soils. Even, a city dweller having a garden, willing to harvest rain water, an inquisitive mind searching for ways to get out of the system murdering soil will find the recently released book useful, easily perceptible. To a learner, it functions as a guide book, and to a practitioner, it’s a manual. It’s useful not only for large farmers in the US, but also for farmers in Bangladesh, Chad, China, India, Niger, Thailand, Venezuela, and countries struggling with unhealthy and dying soils – soils with decreasing productivity, soils declining to produce according to farmers’ wishes and needs. But, the mechanism currently being followed in large swaths of land across continents is punishing the soils in ways that jeopardize their long-term productivity. The decline of soil health is threatening human life. Despite the dangerous fact the fatal practices are being followed. Building Soils for Better Crops helps specify the problem, shows the way out.

Building Soils for Better Crops, writes Wayne Honeycutt, Ph.D., President and CEO, Soil Health Institute, “has been an influential book in stimulating the increased worldwide interest in soil health. It has helped practitioners and students understand the principles and processes of sustainable soil management, while also providing practical management solutions. The fourth edition builds on that legacy. Not only is it an excellent update of the previous editions, but it significantly expands the book’s scope and insights. It is a valuable source of knowledge for anyone interested in farming and gardening with the Earth in mind.”

Rattan Lal, Distinguished University Professor at Ohio State University and 2020 World Food Prize Laureate, has the same opinion: “Rarely does a book combine genuine scientific insights with practical advice like Building Soils for Better Crops. It focuses on using ecological principles to improve soil health, while also touching on the broader societal concerns with healthy food and environmental sustainability. Farming profitably in a time of climate change and concerns about fossil fuels, water resources, and nutrients requires a holistic understanding and practical answers for translating science into action. Easily accessible and well written, this book is a must-read for beginners and experienced professionals alike.”

“Soil pollution has been internationally recognized as a major threat to soil health, and it affects the soil’s ability to provide ecosystems services, including the production of safe and sufficient food, compromising global food security.” (GASP) The Building Soils for Better Crops, Ecological Management for Healthy Soils helps point the way for farmers to reverse soil degradation, and to improve soil health, contributing to sustaining human life.

Building soil health and boosting fertility, yields and overall sustainability are vital issues today. The reasons:

[1] Soil is being killed in the sense that practices followed greatly reduce the number and variety of soil organisms essential for a well-functioning soil system. In many areas, soil has already been drastically degraded. The economy that dominates soil degrades soil.

[2] Fertility is declining. In many areas, fertility has already declined as soils become less healthy.

[3] The same is with yield. In areas, to keep yield to optimum level even as soil health declines, more and more fertilizers and pesticides are being administered. It seems, soil’s hunger for fertilizer is ever increasing.

[4] Frequently whole regions concentrate on particular crops such as wheat or cotton and farmers are pushed into growing these crops because they are easy to sell in local markets. This makes it difficult to maintain a good crop rotation, one that nourishes the soil and provides a variety of crops.

[5] The overall reality raises the question of sustainability; and it’s not only soil’s or yield’s sustainability, but, of the entire agriculture system.

In this perspective, urgent questions – what to do, how to do – haunt not only farmers, but all aware of the state of agriculture, concerned with wellbeing of human society. Even, the capital that scourges soil for profit is also concerned with the problem as its drive to maximize profit will get hurt if the reality persists.

The FAO-UNEP report said:

“Soil pollution is one of the main threats to soil health […]”

“Since the beginning of the XXI century, the global annual production of industrial chemicals has doubled to approximately 2.3 billion tonnes and is projected to increase by 85 percent by 2030.”

The Building Soils for Better Crops, Ecological Management for Healthy Soils comes out as a helping hand in nourishing soil, keeping soil healthy, fruitful, friendly – friendly to life. The info and suggestions it carries, the approach and methods it suggests are useful to all concerned: farmers – ecological and non-ecological, ranchers, planters – tea, coffee, timber, etc., gardeners – urban and rural, urban farming planners and practitioners, rainwater harvesters, landscapers – in private capacity and at public level, cooperative members, environment activists, policy-planners, educators, learners – at formal institutions, and self-learners – at informal level. Even, scientists, engineers and technicians concerned with the area – agriculture including tilling, irrigation and harvesting, forestry – will find issues and problems, which help them design machines/technology and structure. The book is also helpful to those active with people’s rights, democratic rights. The style is easy, reader-friendly. The new edition, enhanced and expanded, shows ways to use ecological principles to build/improve soil’s health that enhances fertility, yields and overall sustainability.

The chapters and parts of the chapters tell the aspects the book covers:

Organic Matter – The key to healthy soils, Organic matter: What it is and why it’s so important, Amount of organic matter in soils, The living soil.

Physical Properties and Nutrient Cycles and Flows – Soil particles, water and air, Soil degradation: erosion, compaction and contamination, Carbon and nutrient cycles and flows.

Ecological Soil Management – Soil health, plant health and pests, Managing for high-quality soils: focusing on organic matter management, Cover Crops, Diversifying cropping systems, Integrating crops and livestock, Making and using composts, Reducing runoff and erosion, Addressing compaction, Minimizing tillage, Managing water: irrigation and drainage, Nutrient management: An Introduction, Management of Nitrogen and Phosphorus, Other fertility issues: nutrients, CEC, acidity, alkalinity, Getting the most from analyzing your soil and crop, Soils for urban farms, gardens and green spaces.

Putting It All Together – How good are your soils? Field and laboratory evaluation of soil health, and, Putting it all together.

Seven case studies of farmers/practices enrich the book.

Fred Magdoff, emeritus professor of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont, was Plant and Soil Science Department chair for eight years and coordinator of the 12-state Northeast Region for the US Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program for two decades. He is also a fellow of the American Society of Agronomy and the 2016 recipient of the Presidential Award of the Soil Science Society of America “for outstanding influence on soil science and enduring impact on the future of our science and profession.” He has worked on soil testing for nitrogen and phosphorus, the effects of manures on soil properties and crop yields, buffering of soil pH, and many other issues related to soil health. He lives in Burlington and Fletcher, Vt., with his wife, two dogs, a large garden, and occasional flock of chickens and a small herd of beef cows. He doesn’t fail to understand the failure of present agriculture practices and approaches, and the consequences of a linear approach – exploit to the last extent for maximization of profit.

Harold van Es, professor of soil science at Cornell University, served as chair of the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. Born in Amsterdam, Netherlands, he moved to the United States for graduate studies and eventually a life and career in science. His current research, teaching and extension efforts focus on soil health, digital agriculture and environmental statistics. He co-developed the widely used CASH soil health test and was the lead inventor of the Adapt-N technology, which was successfully commercialized and received the $1 million prize for the Tulane Nitrogen Reduction Challenge. He was the 2016 president of the Soil Science Society of America, and is a fellow of that society, and a fellow of the American Society of Agronomy. He and his wife live in Lansing, N.Y., where they raised three children.

The two scientists, in the book, “purposely stay away from prescriptive approaches.” Because, “[t]here are just too many differences from one field to another, one farm to another, and one region to another, to warrant blanket recommendations. To make specific suggestions, it is necessary to know the details of the soil, crop, climate, machinery, human considerations and other variable factors. Good soil management is knowledge intensive and needs to be adaptive.”

They remind the hard fact:

“Throughout history, humans have worked the fields, and land degradation has been a common occurrence. Many civilizations have disintegrated from unsustainable land use, including the cultures of the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, where the agricultural revolution first began about 10,000 years ago. The 2015 Status of the World’s Soil Resources report produced by FAO’s Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils raised global awareness on soil’s fundamental role for life on earth but estimated that 33 percent of land is moderately to highly degraded, and it is getting worse. The report identified 10 main threats to soil’s ability to function: soil erosion, soil organic matter loss, nutrient imbalance, soil acidification, soil contamination, waterlogging, soil compaction, soil sealing, salinization and loss of soil biodiversity. The current trajectories have potentially catastrophic consequences and millions of people are at risk, especially in some of the most vulnerable regions. Moreover, this has become much more relevant as soils are critical environmental buffers in a world that sees its climate rapidly changing.”

Fred and Harold further bring to notice:

“We must face the reality that we are runningout of land and need to use the agricultural land we have more productively. We have already seen hunger and civil strife over limited land resources and productivity, and global food crises are a regular occurrence. Some countries with limited water or arable land are purchasing or leasing land in other countries to produce food for the ‘home’ market, and investors are obtaining land in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

“Nevertheless, human ingenuity has helped us overcome many agricultural challenges, and one of the truly modern miracles is our agricultural system, which produces abundant food. High yields often come from the use of improved crop varieties, fertilizers, pest control products and irrigation. These yields have resulted in food security for much of the developed world. At the same time, mechanization and the ever-improving capacity of field equipment allow farmers to work an increasing amount of acreage. But we have also spectacularly altered the flows of organic matter and nutrients in an era when agricultural commodities are shipped across continents and oceans.”

“The whole modern system of agriculture and food”, they write, “is based on extensive fossil fuel use: to make and power large field equipment, produce fertilizers and pesticides, dry grains, process food products, and transport themover long distances. With the declining production from easily extractable oil and gas, there has been a greater dependence on sources that are more difficult to extract, such as deep wells in the oceans, the tar sands of Canada and a number of shale deposits (accessed by hydraulic fracturing of the rock). All of these sources have significant negative effects on soil, water, air and climate. With the price of crude oil fluctuating but tending to be much greater than in the 20th century, and with the current relatively low price of natural gas dependent on a polluting industry (water pollution and methane emissions with hydraulic fracturing), the economics of the ‘modern’ agricultural system need to be reevaluated.”

The situation – “millions of people are at risk” – appears a burning issue today with the following facts told by FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO in their joint report The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021, Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition and affordable healthy diets for all:

“Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, we werealready not on track to meet our commitments toend world hunger and malnutrition in all its forms by2030.”

“Nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have accessto adequate food in 2020 – an increase of almost320 million people in just one year.”

“Close to 12 percent of the global population was severely food insecure in 2020, representing 928 millionpeople – 148 million more than in 2019.”

“The high cost of healthy diets coupled with persistenthigh levels of income inequality put healthy diets out of reach for around 3 billion people, especially the poor, in every region of the world in 2019.”

In FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO’s earlier report – The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020, Transforming food systems for affordable healthy diets (, Rome) – the world agencies said:

“In 2019, close to 750 million – or nearly one in ten people in the world – were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity.”

“Considering the total affected by moderate or severe food insecurity, an estimated 2 billion people in the world did not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food in 2019.”

“If recent trends continue, the number of people affected by hunger would surpass 840 million by 2030.”

“[I]n 2019, 21.3 percent (144.0 million) of children under 5 years of age were stunted, 6.9 percent (47.0 million) wasted and 5.6 percent (38.3 million) overweight.”

One of the measures to counter the hunger-risk-situation is, according to the 2021 report, “protect nature, to sustainably manage existing food production and supply systems, and to restore and rehabilitate natural environments.”

The Building Soils for Better Crops helps protect nature, restore natural environment as soil is part of nature and natural environment. It reminds:

“The extent of deteriorating soil on a worldwide basis is staggering: Soil degradation has progressed so far as to decrease yields on about 20% of all the world’s cropland and on 19–27% of the grasslands and rangelands. The majority of agricultural soils are in only fair, poor or very poor condition. Erosion remains a major global problem, robbing people of food and each year continuing to reduce the productivity of the land. Each year some 30–40 billion tons of topsoil are eroded from the croplands of the world.”

Fred and Harold “strongly advocate a holistic management approach designed to prevent problems from developing”. “Higher soil health”, they write, “tends to provide higher yields and more yield stability, while allowing for reduced crop inputs.”

To improve soil health, the scientists suggest six main approaches:

  • reducing tillage
  • avoiding soil compaction
  • growing cover crops
  • using better crop rotations
  • applying organic amendments in appropriate quantities
  • applying inorganic amendments in appropriate quantities, timing and locations.

The book says: “[O]n mixed crop-livestock farms, animal manures can be applied to cropland. It’s easier to maintain organic matter on a diversified crop-and-livestock farm, where sod crops are fed to animals and manures are returned to the soil. Compared to crop farms, fewer nutrients leave farms when livestock products are the main economic output. However, growing crops with high quantities of residues, plus frequent use of green manures and composts, helps maintain soil organic matter and soil health even without animals. In many situations you may have opportunities to bring in organic resources. Perhaps there is a lot of municipal compost available in your area, or may be a nearby dairy farm sells well-composted manure that can help you grow vegetables or improve an orchard or landscaped area.”

It indicates future: “By concentrating on the practices that build high-quality soils, you also will leave a legacy of land stewardship for the next generations to inherit and follow.”

Q U Dongyu, director-general, FAO, and Inger Andersen, executive director, UNEP, say: “It is time to reconnect with our soils, as it is where our food begins.” (“Foreword”, GASP) Building Soils for Better Crops helps reconnect with our soil.

The book has been translated into Chinese. The scientists would welcome translation, adaption of information to local conditions (if desired), and publication of the book anywhere without charging any royalty/fee as they like dissemination of the knowledge among wider populace.

Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es

Building Soils for Better Crops: Ecological Management for Healthy Soils

Contributing writers (farmer case studies): Lizi Barba, Amy Kremen and Laura Barrera

4th edition, 2021, Handbook Series Book 10

Published by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, with funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture.

Identifiers: LCCN 2021018006 | ISBN 9781888626193 (paperback)

Subjects: LCSH: Soil management. | Humus. Classification: LCC S592.8 .M34 2021 | DDC 631.4–dc23

LC record available at

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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