Life Underground: How a Healthy Soil Food Web Makes for a Healthy Planet

The soil food web is an important but often overlooked aspect of sustaining a healthy planet

There is a huge web of interconnected organisms in your soil known as the soil food web. Although the soil food web cannot be seen, its health is key to the health of the soil and, ultimately, the health of our planet. The soil food web can keep predatory bugs away from your plants by attracting beneficial bugs. It can help you use less water when you garden, and it can even pull carbon out of the air and store it in the ground.

So what is the soil food web, and how can we harness its powers to enhance our gardens, farms, and climate?

The soil food web consists of the minute organisms that live in your soil, such as nematodes, bacteria, fungi, microfauna, and more. These organisms help plants convert minerals and nutrients in the soil into energy. They also hold the structure of the soil together and can reduce the amount of supplemental water your crops need. These soil organisms can store carbon, keep fungal infections and viruses away from your plants, and accomplish a host of other benefits on your garden or farm. Unfortunately, so many of the practices that are a part of popularly accepted agriculture actually cause the soil food web to collapse.

There are several steps to building a healthy and abundant soil food web. The first thing we need to do is eliminate conventional seeds, chemical fertilizers like Miracle-Gro, and chemical-based pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Conventional seeds are often coated with chemicals that leach back into the ground. The presence of these chemical constituents in the ground kills the organisms that make up the soil food web and damages our soil. Certified organic seeds, OMRI-approved organic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers must be used in order to build strong soil food webs.

The next step in the process is to consistently add nutrients and minerals back to the soil. The easiest way to accomplish this is to compost your own scraps or buy bagged compost from a trusted supplier. Compost attracts beneficial bugs, such as worms and spiders, that help open up the soil and break down plant materials—both of which allow for a healthy mix of organisms to exist in the soil.

Thirdly, to create a healthy soil food web, we must plant cover crops. Cover cropping is an amazing technique invented by J.I. Rodale of the world-renowned Rodale Institute that involves planting nitrogen-rich materials such as buckwheat, rye, oats, clover, and others. After the cover crops have grown for a while, but before they can reproduce, they are killed and their remains are folded back into the soil. Digging cover crops back into the earth enhances soil fertility and allows the soil to regenerate the nitrogen that was used up by earlier plants.

We also must plant crops that attract beneficial bugs, such as nasturtiums, borage, dill, basil, and chives. If we can attract the bugs that kill predatory insects such as beetles and wasps, we can protect our crops without using pesticides. Besides killing bee populations, pesticides also leach back into our water stream and can render soil infertile over time. Without soil fertility, crops will not grow, more carbon (dioxide and monoxide) will make its way into the atmosphere, and we could again face extreme conditions, like the Dust Bowl. The easiest way to avoid this vicious cycle is to keep the soil food web healthy in the first place.

Photo by Flickr user NRCS Soil Health.

Michael Forman is a native of Bronx, New York, and has lived in New York City for almost his entire life. He is the executive farm director of Pure Love Organic Farms, an organic, urban farm that he and three other friends created in 2012 from a former garbage dump site. Michael also works as the North American account manager for Totally Green in the sustainable technologies field.