Chapter 4: Ecosystem Functions & Services

The combined activity of soil organisms results in ecosystem functions that sustain life on the planet. Ecosystem functions that generate benefits to society have been defined as ecosystem services. The centrality of below ground biodiversity to global sustainability is because soil organisms of different types, shapes and colors are responsible for different ecological functions that underpin the continued provision of a numbers of key soil-based ecosystem services. Soil and its biota provide these ecosystem services, for example, by contributing to the provision of food, fuel and fibre, the infiltration, storage and delivery of clean water, the regulation of nutrient cycles and atmospheric composition, and the provision of cultural values. The enormous diversity of organisms in soil, the complexity of their interactions and the multiple linkages to ecological functions have made their study particularly challenging. A useful approach to more effectively study soil functions has been to group together organisms playing similar roles in the soil into several “functional” groups. These include, for example, decomposers (those breaking down organic matter into simpler organic molecules), mineralizers (those that release nutrients from simpler organic molecules), or ecosystem engineers (those maintaining soil structure and creating channels and pores in the soil profile). The potential to manage various groups of soil organisms for a wide range of environmental, commercial and industrial applications, still remains largely unexploited.

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