Attention to soil biodiversity and its importance for sustainable food production has markedly increased in recent years. In particular, the loss of soil biodiversity as a consequence of intensive agriculture, land degradation and climate change has raised concerns due to the expected negative impacts on ecosystem services, food security and human health. The result is a strong demand for ‘nature-based’ practices that stimulate soil biodiversity or beneficial soil organisms and enhance soil health. Here, we examine the origin of popular ideas on the role of soil biology in sustainable soil management, as well as their potential to address key global challenges related to agriculture. Three examples of such ideas are discussed: 1) a higher fungal:bacterial (F:B) biomass ratio favours soil carbon storage and nutrient conservation; (2) intensive agricultural practices lead to a decline in soil biodiversity with detrimental consequences for sustainable food production; (3) inoculation with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi reduces agriculture’s dependency on synthetic fertilizers. Our analysis demonstrates how ecological theories, especially E.P. Odum’s (1969) hypotheses on ecological succession, have inspired the promotion of agricultural practices and commercial products that are based on the mimicry of (soil biology in) natural ecosystems. Yet our reading of the scientific literature shows that popular claims on the importance of high F:B ratios, soil biodiversity, and the inoculation with beneficial microbes for soil health and sustainable agricultural production cannot be generalized and require careful consideration of limitations and possible trade-offs. We argue that dichotomies and pitfalls associated with the normative use of nature as a metaphor for sustainability can be counterproductive given the urgency to achieve real solutions that sustain food production and natural resources. Finally, implications for soil ecology research and sustainable soil management in agriculture are discussed.