Humans for Humus, and Vice Versa

As you read this edition of the Ag-Sieve, keep four words in mind: quality, regeneration, amendment, and humus. Preface each of these concepts with the word that expresses our central concern, soil. There is much debate these days about soil quality. Very simply, at issue is what kind of soil we want to live with. For millions of us, soil quality is a matter of life and death. Today, nearly three billion acres of the Earth's agricultural soils are at risk of serious degradation due to poor management. This is not a call to assign blame, but to act. Now is the time for soil regeneration.

To neglect soil regeneration when discussing soil amendments is dangerous. There are, for example, experiments in certain quarters on the use of rubber pellets to improve soil structure. There may be reasonable arguments in favor of rubber as a soil amendment, but can it be better than composted manure? Let's not spend too much time and money to find out what we already know. Likewise, many petrochemical fertilizers nourish plants, but fall short as a long-term soil amendment. To depend wholeheartedly on petrochemicals for growing food can numb our perception of what soil really is.

Soil is not merely a medium to support plant growth. Those of us who believe in soil regeneration as a guiding management principle understand this. The soil is home to hundreds of life forms. At best, the soil is a tangible challenge to our creativity, to make what is good even better. To leave the soil that we use in better condition than how we found it is a great idea. We can create a better world by improving the quality of our soil.

Our capacity to make the world a better place begins with creative thinking. Perhaps you know that the seminal, Indo-European root of the word "create" is ker. This root has several meanings, one of which is "to grow". One derivative of the root ker is Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.

Likewise, the Indo-European root of the word "human" is dhghem, which translates as "earth". Writing in Soil Science in December, 1991, Dr. Daniel Hillel noted that "human" means "of humus". Apart from not being surprised to find ourselves return to dust one fine day, as forewarned, let's consider our connection to humus.

Humans and humus alike are mysterious and intriguing. On some days we represent an amended form of life, given our capacity to reason and our language skills. On the other hand, humus represents what is living and good about the soil. Can we link soil quality, soil regeneration, and soil amendments to the status of humus in our agricultural soils? That is a reasonable challenge.

In this Ag-Sieve, selected research on various soil amendments is presented, yet discussion about humus is limited. Truly amended soils are rich in humus. So it is time to resurrect humus as a soil management ideal, and make it a focus of agronomic research. We will be better off for it.