Managing Soils

Australia's (and South Australia's) soils are highly variable in texture, characteristics, and capability. And that's why there exists such a wide diversity of ecosystems and plant life. 

In late 2008, comments were sought on “Managing Australia's Soils – A policy discussion paper” by NCST Secretariat (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry).
Because of my strong interest in landscape matters and sustainable use of resources, I prepared a brief submission. Reference to the Policy Discussion Paper will be necessary where I have mentioned specific page references. 


This is a very much needed paper in the context of Australia's pathway to sustainability and in adding a louder voice to a primary critical concern – soils. Having lived in a number of rural communities during the past 25 years in SA and Victoria and observing landscapes during travels around Australia, my view of the need to change land use practices and the necessity to establish greater connectedness with natural systems has been reinforced.

To tolerate the unacceptable, to forget past follies, to resist the need to change, to misunderstand the forces in nature, to support ignorance – must all be turned around if we are to confront national and global environmental degradation.

The discussion paper echoes sentiments that have been with me for many years. I can add very little to what has been written except that I offer the following brief comments and hope that they will be useful.


It is agreed that the crux of the whole problem lies in para. 2 pg 5. Importantly however, we are entering a very different era in land use which will be impacted by continual global volatility in terms of climate, climate change, food availability, food transportation, energy costs and availability.

Soil management will involve greater emphasis on local/regional food production.

To satisfy food requirements, reallocation of land may need to occur away from “trendy non-essential (luxury?)” crops such as wine-grape viticulture.

In times of emergencies – e.g. food shortages, drought, global volatility – greater resilience at local/regional levels will need to be asserted. The same will occur when transportation costs escalate beyond viable limits. Limitations on fuel availability (i.e. emergency fuel supplies) are presently in a perilous state – this will affect broadacre farm production, and ostensibly soil management.

Local/regional food production systems will need to re-emerge to serve local/regional populations. Strengthening of such systems will need re-assessment of social, economic, and productive capabilities. This approach needs much greater investigation, particularly if a fall-back position is needed in the event of major global crises emerging.

Reduction of food miles and use of recoverable/recyclable wastes will be essential elements in this altered economic scenario.

The foundation premise of “how soils can be given greater emphasis within an integrated NRM framework” (pg 7 of the paper) is agreed with. For example, in my region of SA, the Northern & Yorke Natural Resources Management Board's NRM Plan (Draft) 2008 acknowledges key information gaps including lack of soil mapping, no measurable indicators, little quantitative information on impacts of improved land management practices. There are very large knowledge gaps in terms of soil health and catchment condition. This problem is mirrored by the chronic low attention of human resources to the issue.

In terms of “ecological values and ecosystem services” (pg 7) I believe there should be action to restore systems to some semblance of acceptability in highly degraded landscapes. Australia's landscape is littered with a history of failed agricultural ventures,  and no restitution of failed practices. 

Refer to “Resetting the Compass – Australia's Journey Towards Sustainbility” (Yencken D & Wilkinson D, CSIRO Publishing, 2000). An interesting historical perspective of the SA wheat frontier is D W Meinig's “On the Margins of the Good Earth”.

  • Soil issues and catchment health need to be re-asserted and reinforced in local government development plans, and then acted on when necessary.
  • Foresighting methodology is a useful tool in understanding soil condition.
  • It is agreed  that “distinctively Australian land use systems that are resilient in the face of rapid environmental change” (pg 10) must evolve. However, we must always be aware of the threats to public health of foods produced by contemporary and emerging technologies. See the book “Dangerous Grains” (Braly & Hoggan).
  • “Disinvestment” (pg 14) is a major human issue in many land use systems. With the passing of time it becomes an indicator of the human condition of denial.
  • Landscape valuation is a condition of denial – an example is the persistent neglect of restoration of eroded landscapes and watercourses.
  • Climate change adaptation – how can new values be introduced to soil systems? Resetting the compass perhaps!
  • The ecological carrying capacity and the human “ecological footprint” - an impossible dream when there is a requirement to “double world food production by 2050”. This is very scary! Soils are linked to population control policies on a global scale, but which government today is talking about population control?
  • Table 2 in the report could be the key to the future for Australia. Perhaps we also need a competitive (competing?) stewardship model which involves “beacon” projects to assist with on-farm improvements and consequently allow successful work to grow out from these projects much like cell growth.
  • “Rebuilding commitment” at 4.2 – agree, but add that “hobby” farmers can play an important role in carbon capture strategies via revegetation. (This is exactly what I have done for the past 10 years on my 33 ha property, and amazing soil condition improvements have occurred).
  • At 4.4 Rebuilding capacity”, suggest adding stronger focus on soils in high school curricula. This will be vital to seeing an evolution in the importance of soils in the community.
  • Education about land use change is needed at all levels of society.
  • Raising the bar on soil “law” is needed. There is no place now for entrenched or inherited views like “I can do whatever I like with my land”. This is still said openly today, and is a real problem in soil conservation.


8 December 2008

What else can be done? Go to A New Direction For Agriculture.

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