The State of Australia’s Soils

30 April 2015 FDI Team

Download PDF

 

Christopher Johns
Research Assistant
Northern Australia Research Programme

 

Key Points

  • Australian soils differ from those of northern America or Europe, where much scientific study on soil regeneration is taking place. Australian soils are generally older and have been exposed to constant weathering.
  • Knowledge of the importance of soils and soil science is seen to be declining.
  • Soils play an important role in three of the key debates of our time: food security, water quality and climate change.
  • Soil degradation is the decline in soil quality caused by its improper use, usually for agricultural, pastoral, industrial or urban purposes. This is a serious global problem and is being exacerbated by climate change.
  • A significant proportion of the cropland and improved pasture in Australia is affected by some form of soil degradation.

     

Summary

A detailed knowledge of the state of Australian soils is currently difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain. The vast size of the country, climatic variation, the complexity of measurement and cost are just some of the reasons why the task is prohibitive. This situation notwithstanding, it is vital we develop such knowledge so as to inform key policy and decision makers of the state of our soils and what needs to be done to address the continued decline in their fertility. Soil has fundamentally important role in three of the key debates of our time: food security, water quality and climate change. There are a number of degraded soil conditions currently causing environmental and economic concern in Australia: acidification, erosion, salinity, depletion, structural decline and compaction are just some of them.

 

Analysis

In March 2014, the Minister for Agriculture, the Hon. Barnaby Joyce, released the National Soil Research Development and Extension Strategy. This Strategy, combined with the extended appointment of Major General the Hon. Michael Jeffery as the National Advocate for Soil Health and the leadership, coordination, direction and advocacy provided by the National Committee for Soils and Terrain, for the first time provides Australia with a national, coordinated and forward thinking approach to managing our soil. One of the most important and challenging tasks they face is the provision of an accurate and current assessment of the state of Australian soils.

Soils are complex and Australian soils differ from those of northern America or Europe where much scientific study on soil regeneration is taking place.  Australian soils are generally older and have been exposed to constant weathering.  Unlike Northern Hemisphere soils, which have been farmed for centuries, Australian soils have only been cultivated since British settlement and, as a result, have been exposed to influences widely different from those under which they were formed.

Within Australia soils also differ widely. Spread over 7,692,024 square kilometres, approximately one-third lies in the tropics. Soil types vary from alpine regions in parts of south-eastern Australia and Tasmania, through the Mediterranean zones of southern and south-western Australia to the wet and dry tropics of Queensland and very low rainfall areas of the centre. Indeed, over one million square kilometres of the Northern Territory and the northern part of Western Australia are almost devoid of soil and what exists is usually shallow, leached and mildly acidic. This diversity adds to the complexity of analysing soils and determining what needs to be done to regenerate them.

To compound these problems, knowledge of the importance of soils and soil science is also seen to be declining.  The gradual contraction and demise of soil conservation surveys, or their equivalent have, resulted in the loss of a generation’s worth of knowledge.  Even the teaching of soil related sciences, in our tertiary institutions, has declined. Government agencies are decreasing their involvement in soil research, and communication of soils-related knowledge to land managers and the community is declining.  Instead, consultants are hired to answer a specific problem resulting in piecemeal solutions which are not shared throughout the agricultural community.

The National Soil Research Development and Extension Strategy and other recent, soil related initiatives, acknowledge the important role soils play in three of the key debates of our time: food security, water quality and climate change. Along with air and water, soil is one of the essentials of life and among our most basic natural resources. It supports the overwhelming majority of our terrestrial biodiversity and it contains vast quantities of carbon and water. It plays a fundamental role in the water and carbon cycles as well as being the engine room for food production. As a recent publication from the Federal Government Department of Agriculture stated, healthy soils grow healthy foods, which grow healthy rural and urban communities.