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Research Brief: Thoughts on the Soil Health Metaphor

In this series, we summarize soil health resources and research from across the country. Thank you to Derek Hilfiker of Virginia Tech for this write-up!

H. H. Janzen, Janzen, D. W. and Gregorich, E. G. (2021) The ‘soil health’ metaphor: Illuminating or illusory? Soil Biology and Biochemistry 159 p. 108167


            In the article entitled “The ‘soil health metaphor: Illuminating or illusory?”, Janzen et al. discusses the use of the soil health metaphor in public and scientific discourse. The authors first acknowledge that metaphors have long been used in science to help make abstract concepts easier to understand but can also make concepts vague and difficult to quantify numerically. Soil health is not immune from being simultaneously helpful and vague. While soil health elicits a strong response from audiences due to the connotations of the word “health”, the use of the word “health” also leads to confusion on what constitutes a healthy soil. As one typically associates the word “health” with human health, the association of soil health with human health manifests naturally. This association leads to assumptions that soil health can be measured through a host of universal tests much in the same way human health can be measured. Unfortunately, this is not the case with soil.

Soil is incredibly diverse and serves numerous functions that vary with time, space, and personal perspective. One person might view a healthy soil as being able to support many different wildlife species, while a different person might view the same soil as healthy only if it can produce 200-bushel corn. These two different views are not inherently wrong but highlight how soil health innately depends on personal perspective. Due to how divergent views on what soil health is can be, it is important that those promoting soil health practices clearly define what soil health is for the system being described and be willing to take input from various stakeholders in forming the definition. As the Virginia Soil Health Coalition is advocating for soil health from an agricultural perspective, it is important we continue to clearly state the framework the soil health practices we suggest fit into and how they will help producers create healthier soil. If we continue to do this, our messaging will lead to the continued adoption of practices that increase soil health from an agricultural perspective.  

Dr. Henry Janzen presents at the Virginia Soil Health Coalition Quarterly Meeting on September 15th, 2022.

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