Soil scientists enthusiastic about future of sustainable agriculture


We are halfway through the International Year of Soil, and Australian soil scientists are brimming with enthusiasm, a contrast to the doomsayers. The World Food and Agriculture Organisation issued a warning that the world’s soils have only 60 years of harvests left, because they are becoming degraded. The local soil scientists brush that off, arguing improvements in areas like soil carbon will produce longer lasting and healthier soils.

While it takes 1,000 years to make three centimetres of topsoil, a house or a highway will destroy it in a year. Soil is fragile, and can be destroyed by overuse of chemicals, deforestation and erosion, and there is also climate change. But that is where soil can help, according to professor of soil science at Sydney University, Dr Alex McBratney.

“Soil carbon mitigates climate change, but it also improves soil structure, and in the end soil productivity,” said Professor McBratney. “In the end, all the work we do on soil carbon in Australia and across the world will push that 60 years way back. We can make soils a sustainable resource, not a renewable resource, but sustainable resource into the future of humanity.”

Professor McBratney this month became the new Dean of Agriculture at Sydney University, which bodes well for devoting research effort to his chosen field of soil. But he said he would like to see much more money overall spent on soil research, development and extension. “It’s a bit of a mixed story in terms of funding. I think it’s currently around $125 million a year, and it probably needs to be another $125 million,” he commented.

“We do have a soil R, D & E strategy, very good ideas, but at the moment no particular funding for that strategy,” he added. “As we all know, investment in CSIRO in state agriculture departments has dropped, but we do see an increase in research activity in the universities. That’s some 20 to 30 universities doing significant research in soils.”


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