Healthy soil is a popular concept,  sometimes promoted as “regenerative” farming, yet is traceable to very early challenges made to conventional farming and which largely triggered the new field. At the recent 2020 Soil Sci Society meetings, Will Brinton and Eliot Coleman, both of Maine, combined their experiences of 40 years in science and practice to review the history of soil health methods. In their oral paper, they follow the CO2 respiration soil test for soil life back in time to some specific events when “alternative” biological farming first became recognized for improved soil biology. In one example, Germany’s Ministry of Agriculture acceded in 1979 to a paired study of conventional vs biological farms. This resulted in a landmark report that established the framework of “physical, chemical and biological” indicators in soil quality assessment. From that point the new science spread into Switzerland and Sweden, with definitions of soil health by1978, field studies launched in the 1980’s and on. A textbook by Springer Press on soil biology lab methods was already available by 1990 – 404 pages of more than 100 tested methods for qualifying biologically active soils. Yet, curiously, most people today think these ideas and test protocols originated quite recently in American academia.

Instead, NRCS, in its soil health test manual, attributes the origins of soil health to the 1973 oil embargo in America – ostensibly because farmers learned to appreciate the value of chemical nitrogen – or alternatives to it. There may be some tiny truth to this.

Brinton and Coleman outline stepwise, important early contributions in building the new soil health methods, in how to get repeatable results, gauging the proper handling of soil, the time-frames for tests and more. One conclusion is that these early precedents – inspired largely by visionary organic practice – are being currently overlooked, and perhaps purposefully. The seeming rush to standardize soil health lab protocols in the USA – unusual in the sciences – may only confirm of the power of the concept,- but perhaps more, indicates continued political discomfort. Rhetorically, science and practice may teeter-totter between industry and government trying to make up its mind about how to curb soil abuse, while bringing all stakeholders – the entire food service and agribusiness sector – into the discussion A glimpse of Brinton’s oral lecture may be found <here>.