- In 2015, as a member nation of the FAO, Australia endorsed the Revised World Soil Charter.
- The charter contains nine actions for signatory governments.
- The Australian government’s performance in implementing these actions is graded as follows: three pass, three teetering between pass and fail and three failed.
- In addition to governments, the Charter also assigns actions to individuals and to the scientific community.
In 1981, the first World Soil Charter was endorsed by the member nations of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). This Charter specifically addressed soil as an essential natural resource and highlighted principles and guidelines for action by a range of stakeholders in the fight against soil degradation and in the interest of soil conservation. The FAO subsequently identified that, over time, the text of the Charter no longer adequately reflects the world soil situation and therefore needed to change. Following wide consultation with the international soil community, a proposed revised text was presented in July 2014 and, after some additional draft amendment, was endorsed by all member nations, including Australia, at the 39th FAO Conference in June 2015. The unanimous endorsement recognised the urgent need to promote sustainable soil management by all stakeholders and at all levels.
The Revised Charter contains the following nine actions for governments:
- Promote sustainable soil management that is relevant to the range of soils present and the needs of the country.
- Strive to create socio-economic and institutional conditions favourable to sustainable soil management by removal of obstacles.
- Participate in the development of multi-level, interdisciplinary educational and capacity-building initiatives that promote the adoption of sustainable soil management by land users.
- Support research programs that will provide sound scientific backing for development and implementation of sustainable soil management relevant to end users.
- Incorporate the principles and practices of sustainable soil management into policy guidance and legislation at all levels of government, ideally leading to the development of a national soil policy.
- Explicitly consider the role of soil management practices in planning for adaptation to and mitigation of climate change.
- Establish and implement regulations to limit the accumulation of contaminants beyond established levels to safeguard human health and wellbeing and facilitate remediation of contaminated soils that exceed these levels where they pose a threat to humans, plants, and animals.
- Develop and maintain a national soil information system and contribute to the development of a soil information system.
- Develop a national institutional framework for monitoring implementation of sustainable soil management and overall state of soil resources.
Australia, as a signatory to the Revised World Soil Charter, has an international obligation to implement the guideline actions it contains. In this interview, Noel Schoknecht of Soil Science Australia has provided a “report card” on Australia’s performance so far in the implementation of the nine action items for government.
FDI: How is Australia faring against the Revised World Soil Charter?
NS: In my capacity as the Editor of Profile, the newsletter of Soil Science Australia, and a former Principal Research Scientist in soils in the Western Australian government, I recently did an opinion piece about the need for a national policy on soils and outlined our progress (or probably more correctly lack of progress) towards that aim.
At that time, I mentioned the Revised World Soil Charter – a document unanimously endorsed by member countries (including Australia) during the 39th FAO Conference in June 2015. The charter document is on the FAO website.
The charter refers to several guidelines for action – nine of those by government.
Although this is just my opinion, and not a peer-reviewed critique of our performance, I have a fair bit of experience in this area, and my assessment is that we are doing somethings well, but doing many things poorly. I won’t delve into the details of each recommended action here, nor specifically address all of the actions from the charter in detail – I hope to go into that level of detail in a future document – but here is my summary assessment of the government’s performance: PASS, TEETERING or FAIL.
FDI: To which action items do you award the government with a PASS?
NS: Action I: Promoting sustainable soil management. Across the board, Australia is active in this space, even though governments, industry, academia and the community are variably successful in promoting this action. But at least the intent is there. So, well done.
Action II: Socio-economic and institutional conditions favourable to sustainable soil management. Given our history of Natural Resource Management, Landcare, Caring for Our Country and our various institutional mechanisms for managing risk (e.g. property rights, insurance, drought) a tick is in order.
Action VII: Contaminants. Where human health and contaminants are involved we have comprehensive systems and policies in place. Another big tick.
FDI: To which action items do you award the government with a TEETERING grading?
NS: Action VIII: Develop and maintain a national soil information system. Even though we have the foundation of this system based in CSIRO, it is hanging by a thread with very low investment at a national level and limited buy in from the state agencies. The national Soil Research Development and Extension is trying to address this issue as a priority but it’s an uphill battle. Watch this space as hopefully this is where we can get some traction.
Action III: Education and capacity building. Much of the support in this area is outside of the government sphere, and this is an area where Soil Science Australia excels. There are nodes of excellence in some areas of government and government funded organisations, and this area gets a tentative tick.
Action IV: Research programmes that provide sound scientific backing for development and implementation of sustainable soil management. Australian soil science has a great international reputation and track record in this space, but funding sources appear to be shrinking quickly and the science is at risk.
FDI: To which action items do you award the government with a FAIL grading?
NS: Action IX: National institutional framework for monitoring. We have no national framework for monitoring, nor an institution with the mandate for delivering it. This is a major failing of government. How can we plan for action, when we don’t really know what’s happening?
Action V: Policy development and legislation. There is a policy vacuum in the soils space, with little willingness from governments at state and territory or at the national level to develop a coherent national policy on soils and to enshrine this in legislation.
Action VI: Soil management for climate change. As a nation, we are just not taking this issue seriously enough. Or for that matter the whole issue of climate change. Fail.
FDI: So, what does this all mean?
NS: Australia agreed to the Revised World Soil Charter, but largely pays lip service to acting on it. I encourage you all to read the charter and consider how you think we are going, and how can we, as members of Soil Science Australia who work in government, industry, academia and the community, influence government actions and achieve the positive outcomes espoused in the charter? It’s in all our interests to do so.
FDI: So far, we have only mentioned the actions to be taken by government. Does the Charter assign responsibilities to other groups or individuals?
NS: Most certainly. There are two other groups mentioned in the Charter and this is where I would suggest Future Directions International, Soils for Life and the National Advocate for Soil Health, Major General Mike Jeffery, have an important role to play.
Firstly, the Charter assigns the following actions to individuals and the private sector:
- All individuals using or managing soil must act as stewards of the soil to ensure that this essential natural resource is managed sustainably to safeguard it for future generations.
- Undertake sustainable soil management in the production of goods and services.
Secondly, the Charter assigns actions to groups and the science community:
- Disseminate information and knowledge on soils.
- Emphasise the importance of sustainable soil management to avoid impairing key soil functions.
The responsibilities assigned to us all as individuals notwithstanding, it is as a vehicle for the dissemination of information and knowledge that I see a valuable role for the organisations and entities like those you mention.
I particularly commend and emphasise the importance of General Jeffery’s role as the Advocate. He has a wide range of contacts and his opinion is sought by politicians, public servants, research bodies and the farming and agricultural community generally.