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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








http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-23/johan-boucan-soils-feed-the-world/5332570


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