The importance of soil organic matter

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Healthy soil is the foundation of the food system. It produces healthy crops that in turn nourish people. Maintaining a healthy soil demands care and effort from farmers because farming is not benign. By definition, farming disturbs the natural soil processes including that of nutrient cycling – the release and uptake of nutrients.

Plants obtain nutrients from two natural sources: organic matter and minerals.
Organic matter includes any plant or animal material that returns to the soil and goes through the decomposition process. In addition to providing nutrients and habitat to organisms living in the soil, organic matter also binds soil particles into aggregates and improves the water holding capacity of soil. Most soils contain 2–10 percent organic matter. However, even in small amounts, organic matter is very important.

Soil is a living, dynamic ecosystem. Healthy soil is teeming with microscopic and larger organisms that perform many vital functions including converting dead and decaying matter as well as minerals to plant nutrients. Different soil organisms feed on different organic substrates. Their biological activity depends on the organic matter supply.

Nutrient exchanges between organic matter, water and soil are essential to soil fertility and need to be maintained for sustainable production purposes. Where the soil is exploited for crop production without restoring the organic matter and nutrient contents and maintaining a good structure, the nutrient cycles are broken, soil fertility declines and the balance in the agro-ecosystem is destroyed.

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