The shrinking life under our feet

Monta Heidemane, Latvia, 16 years old

Intensively tillaged soil. Photo: Monta Heidemane

We each depend on the miraculous, mysterious living organisms in the soil. These living organisms affect food quality, water filtration, carbon sequestration and even the decomposition of the pollution in the soil. [1] But, because of intensive agriculture, the soil’s biological diversity or, in simple words saying, the diversity of life underground is decreasing at increasing rates. Is it really acceptable to destroy this life?

Striving after economic growth, humankind even has learned how to grow plants with the help of artificially means and intensive soil tillage, practically completely bypassing and destroying soil biological diversity. Truly surprisingly is that in the soil has formed a soil food web and in it live 1/4 of all living species on earth, in order sometimes though may seem that nothing more than earthworms and moles doesn’t live there. [2]

What makes up the living world of soil?

Soil biological diversity and this food web are made of a lot of different organisms – bacterias, fungi, protozoans, nematodes, arthropods (myriapods, arachnids, collembolans, insects), earthworms, mammals such as moles, who love juicy earthworms and other living beings. The amount of these different organisms is remarkable – 1 gram of healthy soil may contain millions of bacteria, some meters of fungi hyphens, ten thousand algae, thousands of protozoans and dozens of nematodes. [3]

The miraculous achievements of the invisible life

This life makes up the structure of the soil and protects plants from diseases and even insects. Microorganisms provide and can promote soil fertility. In turn from soil fertility depends on plants health and productivity. The more fertile agricultural lands are, the more valuable, healthier and in fact bigger crop you can get. Plants with microorganisms have established a symbiotic relationship, in which plants releases produced sugars, to feed bacterias and fungi to receive these beings excrements with nutrients. There are fungi that make up a special relationship with plants – mycorrhiza. In this relationship, plants give carbon and glucose to fungi in exchange for minerals and water. [4] Interesting is also that the more microorganisms are in the soil, the looser, more porous and oxygen-filled is the soil, thus significantly reducing the possibility of soil compaction. Can conclude that plants with the help of microorganisms provide themselves with all needed nutrients, therefore humans don’t need to fertilize plants, but to spare and take care of soil biological diversity though.

What endangers and reduces soil biological diversity?

One of the main reasons for the loss of soil biological diversity is intensive agriculture and the farming methods used in it, such as tillage – plowing, harrowing, etc. – which disturb and kill soil organisms. Although part of some agricultural sector representatives claim that soil tillage improves the structure of the soil, air and water permeability, experts point out the opposite – soon the soil will be compacted again due to the lack of microorganisms diversity and amount. [5] Because of the tillage, reduces soil fertility, the life living in it and in general it degradate. Unfavorable impact on the charming world of the soil leave also the use of synthetic minerals and pesticides, because it is being destroyed again. Synthetic minerals are salts and as a result of that part of the organisms dies. It should also be taken into account that, if only synthetic minerals are used, the amount of organic matter in the soil is low, which means that microorganisms are forced to go find a better living environment. Pesticides are used to fight unbeneficial organisms, such as plants, fungi, snails and others.

Sold pesticide amounts in Latvia have increased. Data: “Eurostat”

Jana Simanovska, the chemist, Doctor of Environmental Sciences, complements: “The main problem with pesticides is that when pesticides are approved, each pesticide is studied separately. At the same time, the soil enters a pesticide cocktail and there is no information on how this cocktail impact humans and soil microorganisms.”

However, it is known that pesticides don’t only kill unbeneficial organisms they are used to kill.

Lasma Ozola, Biological agriculture specialist of The Latvian countryside consultation and education center, share an example: “For example, fungicides work against fungi, so they kill both unbeneficial and beneficial fungi.”

We must also not forget about soil erosion, because this process also has an impact on the loss of soil biodiversity. “The main reason for depleted soils is that they are left bare during the winter and when precipitation hits the empty soil, the soil starts to compact,” says Lasma Ozola. Also, the amount of organic matter in the soil is decreasing, and air and water circulation in the resulting compacts are very slow, insufficient, so soil microorganisms start to decrease. Dramatically is decreasing available habitats where they can live and interact with each other and plants.

How balance food production and the well-being of soil organisms?

It is important to understand in order to preserve and promote soil biological diversity it’s not enough only to one method change, but the whole management system must be changed. One of the types of farming based on the sustainable and gentle use of soil is biological farming.

“Already biological agriculture produces 45% of the whole world’s food,” says Lasma Ozola.

It is necessary to stop till and constantly move soil, because it interferes with beings that live in it. If the microbiological activity of the soil would significantly increase, organisms constantly would loosen the soil and prevent its compaction. Of course, in order to attract more and more organisms, it is necessary to create a favorable environment for them, so the amount of organic matter in the soil must increase. [6] It can be increased and synthetic fertilizers can be replaced by compost, manure, etc. natural fertilizers. Pesticides have to be used because soil health is weakened, biological diversity in it insufficient and natural processes that could protect plants can not take place. Therefore they can be successfully replaced, for example, by introducing a well-thought-out and complete crop rotation, increasing natural enemies and also sowing or planting plants that repel and prevent each other’s unbeneficial organisms, diseases.

However, a completely opposite opinion is expressed by the conventional farmer Oskars Balodis: “I think that we have to start using pesticides smarter, which is often less, but it is impossible without them.”

Of course, soil erosion can also be reduced by using intercrops and catch crops, by not leaving soil bare and by not moving it intensively, thus also providing a beneficial environment for soil organisms.

“It is hopeful that any desert can be turned into fertile soil, for example, by using compost, but another question is how expensive it is,” notify Lasma Ozola.

Earthworms in the organic matter full soil. Photo: Monta Heidemane

Increased outbreaks of unbeneficial insects, plants, diseases, etc. organisms, already is a strong signal that the balance of nature has been destroyed and that urgent action is needed to restore it. A sustainable agriculture system is a path that we shouldn’t only look at, but also going at, because soil degradation, loss of its biological diversity can lead to a food crisis and a disruption of the soil food web. So all the natural world that we can’t survive without. We have excellent, successful and above all soil friendly methods that allow us to manage the soil in a sustainable way and respect the soil’s beautiful organism diversity.


[1] The State of Knowledge of Soil Biodiversity


[2] The factory of life. Why soil biodiversity is so important


[3] State of Knowledge of Soil Biodiversity – Status, challenges and potentialities


[4] O. Nikodemus, A. Karklins, M. Klavins, V. Melecis. “Sustainable use and protection of the soil”. LU Academical supply, 2008.

[5] Understanding the Soil Food Web with Dr. Elaine Ingham


[6] Understanding the Soil Food Web with Dr. Elaine Ingham Available:

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