Skip to main content

Why is soil missing from the 'big five' environmental questions of our time?

ABC Rural 

By Professor Johan Bouma

Updated Mon 24 Mar 2014, 2:25pm AEDT

Can farmers feed 9.5 billion people by 2050?

Before focusing on soils we would be well advised to first consider a broader picture.

'Can healthy soil feed the world?' Seven scientists give their opinion

Why is soil missing from the 'big five' environmental questions of our time?

Finding optimism in the challenge to double food production

Crop yields are determined by many factors such as crop varieties, occurrence of pests and diseases, and socio-economic conditions allowing profitable farming.

Aside from this, sometimes up to 40 per cent of production gets lost in developing countries while being stored and transported.

In so-called developed countries up to 40 per cent of food is thrown away. 

More than one billion people are obese, so what does it really imply: feeding the world?

Important, therefore, to make a distinction between what does happen and what might happen, and not become discouraged.

The good news is that, indeed, farmers will be able to feed 9.5 billion people in 2050, but only when we get our act together in society as well as in the scientific arena. In this context, let's talk about the role of soil science.

Environmental concerns are by now widely shared; but where do soils come in?

Numerous strategic studies and reports have appeared on the state of the world and certain environmental concerns are most often mentioned: food security, freshwater availability, climate change, energy security, biodiversity loss.

No soil means no food, no fresh water, no climate mitigation by soil organic matter, no energy crops and no biodiversity!

Professor Johan Bouma

I like to call these, the 'BIG FIVE'.

Soils are usually not mentioned but we know that no soil means no food, no fresh water, no climate mitigation by soil organic matter, no energy crops and no biodiversity!

But we still have a job to do to better frame our soil expertise in terms of its relevance for these major issues.

The BIG FIVE are often listed separately and, being human after all, agronomists have a tendency to start the list with food, while hydrologists start with water, etc.

But the BIG FIVE should, of course, not be ranked in a sequence of importance nor should they be considered separately, as they are closely related.

Think of a food narrative, relevant for our story. Sustainable food production with modern techniques, such as precision agriculture, can result in clean water, soils with higher organic matter contents and a higher production potential as well as preservation and enhancement of biodiversity.

All this is land-based and here soil science logically enters the equation as a key element of the narrative. So, indeed, what vision is needed for the planet's soils? 

Challenges for soil science

Excellent ,cutting-edge science is produced in soil biochemistry, physics, biology, paedology and pedometrics.

But we are less successful in integrating our expertise, characterising the dynamics of soils as they occur in characteristic patterns in the landscape.

Soil science, like many other sciences, suffers from 'atomisation'. 

What to do? Four suggestions:

The first thing to do internally is to better integrate our sub-disciplines, using a range of modern information technologies.

Modern dairy farms electronically control the health of their cows and fine-tune feeding patterns. What can be done with cows can be done with soils.

We rightly raise alarms about the loss of 30-50 billion tonnes of soil per year due to soil erosion and degradation on the one hand, while we know on the other hand, that techniques to successfully combat these problems are available.

Professor Johan Bouma

Second, we should better communicate with the societal and policy arena and do so with specific examples in the context of narratives as described above. Here, use of soil types is helpful.

To some this is old-fashioned, but I don't agree.

Realise that every soil has a story to tell, a fascinating story of how she was formed and how she functions in terms of potentials and limitations.

It's like a human interest story! But a footnote can be attached here: soil types are defined by soil taxonomy, based on permanent soil properties.

However, a given soil type behaves quite differently following different types of management, such as when, for example, growing crops, grass production or being part of nature preserves.

They are still the same soil type, but different behaviour and different soil properties.

When soil maps are available, go back and see what different forms of management, forming what we call phenoforms, have done to the soil.

Results of thousands of 'experiments' are right there in the field to be observed for free.

Every soil type has a characteristic story to tell: some are vulnerable, some are quite resilient.

 Some react strongly to innovative management, some don't.

Once degraded, some soils don't succeed to recover, others just bounce back. Some easily accept water, others drown. Again, it is like a human interest story.

Third, we should be honest with ourselves.

We rightly raise alarms about the loss of 30-50 billion tonnes of soil per year due to soil erosion and degradation on the one hand, while we know on the other hand, that techniques to successfully combat these problems are available.

The key problem is acceptance and implementation by land users of measures to combat soil degradation.

As they currently are, our research routines tend to focus on writing proposals to obtain funds for research, next on performing research resulting in as many publications as possible and then writing new proposals.

No surprise, then, that implementation of research results is a problem.

A major research program on sustainable agriculture in the Netherlands has shown that to ensure implementation, much effort should be paid to interaction with stakeholders before any project starts.

What do they really think and feel? We should learn from psychologists that sending a message does not necessarily imply that this message is received the way we intend it to be received.

During and particularly after a project, continuous involvement of researchers who are blessed with 'high social intelligence' is needed.

 We call them, 'knowledge brokers'.

They don't just pass along knowledge, but are part of a joint learning process with stakeholders.

A project is only successful when there are visible results!

Most environmental problems are land related and soil scientists are particularly suitable to act as 'knowledge brokers'.

Fourth, and final.

Facing up to different conditions due to climate change, we should pay particular attention to soil resilience and its capacity to absorb extreme events in future.

Soils that can, should be protected with vigour.

For this, simulation modeling of soil processes is essential and much additional effort is needed to incorporate relevant soil data in agronomic, hydrological, climate and ecological models. So far modelling hardly include soil data or, at best, some standard numbers from databases.

This way, future behaviour of soils cannot be simulated in ways they deserve, as living bodies in a landscape.

Topics: land-management, rural

First posted Sun 23 Mar 2014, 9:07pm AEDT

Popular posts from this blog


While "Flavor" is very subjective, and each country that grows mangoes is very nationalistic, these are the mango varieties that are the most sought after around the world because of sweetnesss (Brix) and demand.

The Chaunsa has a Brix rating in the 22 degree level which is unheard of!
Carabao claims to be the sweetest mango in the world and was able to register this in the Guiness book of world records.
Perhaps it is time for a GLOBAL taste test ???

In alphabetical order by Country....



Alphonso (mango)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Alphonso (हापुस Haapoos in Marathi, હાફુસ in Gujarati, ಆಪೂಸ್ Aapoos in Kannada) is a mango cultivar that is considered by many[who?] to be one of the best in terms of sweetness, richness and flavor. 

It has considerable shelf life of a week after it is ripe making it exportable. 

It is also one of the most expensive kinds of mango and is grown mainly in Kokan region of western India.

 It is in season April through May and the fruit wei…

Mangoes date back 65 million years according to research ...

Experts at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany (BSIP) here have traced the origin of mango to the hills of Meghalaya, India from a 65 million year-old fossil of a mango leaf. 

The earlier fossil records of mango (Mangifera indica) from the Northeast and elsewhere were 25 to 30 million years old. The 'carbonized leaf fossil' from Damalgiri area of Meghalaya hills, believed to be a mango tree from the peninsular India, was found by Dr R. C. Mehrotra, senior scientist, BSIP and his colleagues. 

After careful analysis of the fossil of the mango leaf and leaves of modern plants, the BISP scientist found many of the fossil leaf characters to be similar to mangifera.

An extensive study of the anatomy and morphology of several modern-day species of the genus mangifera with the fossil samples had reinforced the concept that its centre of origin is Northeast India, from where it spread into neighbouring areas, says Dr. Mehrotra. 

The genus is believed to have disseminated into neighb…

INDIA 2016 : Mango production in state likely to take a hit this year

TNN | May 22, 2016, 12.32 PM IST

Mangaluru: Vagaries of nature is expected to take a toll on the production of King of Fruits - Mango - in Karnataka this year. A combination of failure of pre-monsoon showers at the flowering and growth stage and spike in temperature in mango growing belt of the state is expected to limit the total production of mango to an estimated 12 lakh tonnes in the current season as against 14 lakh tonnes in the last calendar year.

However, the good news for fruit lovers is that this could see price of mangoes across varieties decrease marginally by 2-3%. This is mainly on account of 'import' of the fruit from other mango-growing states in India, said M Kamalakshi Rajanna, chairperson, Karnataka State Mango Development and Marketing Corporation Ltd.

Karnataka is the third largest mango-growing state in India after Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Inaugurating a two-day Vasanthotsava organized by Shivarama Karantha Pilikula Nisargadhama and the Corporation at P…