Understanding soil microorganisms and their role is vital for farmers

Knowledge of soil microorganisms can help farmers to optimise nutrient management and reduce reliance on synthetic fertilisers, a new report says.

Those fertilisers can have negative environmental impacts over time, according to researchers at the Centre for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).

Microorganisms contribute greatly towards restoration of degraded soils to improve agricultural productivity through beneficial soil ecosystem services.

The researchers say there are more microorganisms in one teaspoon of healthy soil than the entire human population.

They include bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes and other invertebrates.

Alongside soil macrofauna are larger organisms such as earthworms, ants, beetles, millipedes, centipedes, and termites, which play a major role in maintaining and improving soil health.

The higher the population of beneficial organisms, the healthier the soil.

“Studying soil biota is vital because these organisms play important roles in nutrient cycling, soil structure and health, carbon storage, water retention, and plant growth,” says CIFOR-ICRAF research associate Lukelysia Mwangi.

For over a decade, the researchers have been studying how living organisms in soil – such as earthworms, termites, fungi, and bacteria – restore and sustain ecological functions through farm management and agroforestry.

Over 4,000 soil samples have been analysed so far with the findings fundamental for better understanding these species’ interactions with soil and trees. This will help to improve overall farm productivity and address health, biodiversity, and climate challenges.

David Lelei, a scientist in soil biology division at CIFOR-ICRAF, says: “The ability to study organisms changes in a given area as well as time will greatly enhance our capacity to understand the linkages between land use intensity, biodiversity and soil health.”

Larger organisms such as earthworms play a major role in maintaining and improving soil fertility, as well as cycling nutrients and carbon.

They contribute to the maintenance of soil structure and incorporation of organic materials into the soil matrix, which are key in the restoration of degraded soils, as well as mitigating against climate change.

The study of soil biota is important for understanding the functioning of ecosystems, supporting sustainable agriculture, mitigating climate change, and promoting human health.

Mwangi adds: “Our data shows that management techniques can improve soil health, reduce erosion, and increase crop yield.

” Overgrazing, deforestation, or inappropriate land use can have detrimental effects on the environment, including soil degradation, decreased biodiversity, and reduced productivity.

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