First report - advocate for soil health

​Introduction

The mission of the Advocate for Soil Health is to provide strong leadership and advocacy on the importance of healthy soil and the benefits thereof for all Australians. As detailed in the Advocate’s terms of reference, his responsibilities are to promote the importance of healthy soil and to develop cross-sectoral soil research priorities. The Advocate is to ensure that new research meets the needs of farmers and other key stakeholders and that there are adequate support systems to help farmers actively improve the health of their soil.

The work of the Advocate for Soil Health has to date focussed on gaining a more detailed understanding of the roles, responsibilities and interconnectivity of groups involved in natural resource management, and publically advocating the importance of prioritising soil health in the broader context of landscape management. 

In order to better understand the linkages between organisations working in natural resource management, the Advocate has conducted meetings with a range of organisations from government, industry and academia. The Advocate will continue to conduct these meetings across Australia over the course of the year, drawing together information from a range of sources in order to gain a clearer picture of the state of soil science and understanding in Australia, and to assess which areas are in need of greater focus or attention. The Advocate has also been actively engaging with the general public and landscape managers, through keynote addresses at conferences and workshops, tours of university research facilities, visits to soil and land management projects, as well as a number of radio and newspaper interviews.

The Advocate’s work to date has affirmed that soil management is inextricably linked to that of water and vegetation, collectively referred to as ‘landscape management’ and that soil itself is not easily understood.  It follows that, due to the range of stakeholders as well as the diversity of scientific disciplines encompassed under the umbrella of landscape management, advocacy on these issues is complex.

The Advocate has found while there is a significant amount of work on soil underway, there remains scope for better understanding of issues and interactions if soil, water and vegetation are to be properly recognised as national assets. In line with the importance that must be placed on the landscape, the overarching fundamental principle the Advocate has developed is:

Australia’s soil, water and vegetation are key natural, national, strategic assets, and they must be managed accordingly and in an integrated way across the continent.

This first report presents a summary of key issues identified in the role so far, and an outline of areas to be explored further. The Advocate’s final report to the Prime Minister will provide clear strategic direction to future national work in landscape management. 

Objectives

The following objectives have so far been identified as necessary to support the implementation of this fundamental principle:


To ensure that land managers have access to reliable and continuous data around soil, water and biodiversity, necessary to better inform land management decisions.
To better coordinate land management policy and decisions, by recognising the potential, short, medium and long-term impact of these decisions on the wider community and other sectors.
To better focus and then coordinate scientific research by asking the right questions of science, by establishing a consistent information and analytical flow from and to the user by assessing where knowledge gaps exists and by targeting research to these priority areas.

These objectives are likely to evolve and be refined over the course of the Advocate’s work. They will be used to guide the recommendations in the final report of Advocate for Soil Health.

A healthy soil is a soil fit for purpose.
The diversity of soil types in Australia makes it impossible to define a single set of characteristics that make up a healthy soil. A more practical measure is to consider the health of soil in the context of the intended land use, as different uses will have different requirements.

Many physical, chemical and biological processes occur in soils, and they operate at different rates across the landscape according to the climate, land use and soil type. Healthy and productive agricultural soils have these three processes working together to support productivity, maintain environmental quality and promote plant and animal health.

Key Drivers

The following overarching themes are identified as being central to achieving progress on improving soil health in Australia. Key drivers are outlined under each theme for further consideration, noting that there is a significant amount of work underway in this area, and some of these drivers may be captured under existing initiatives and programs.

National Recognition

  • The influence of healthy soils on the environment as a whole, for example by improving water quality and protecting biodiversity, means that our soil is a significant public good. Recognition of the importance of soil (in association with water and vegetation), at the highest level, is required to protect and enhance this national asset. This recognition should note the important role of farmers, who manage approximately 60 per cent of the Australian landscape, which makes their choice of management practice important as it impacts on the wider community.

Inform and Educate

  • Australia’s capacity to increase agricultural productivity will depend heavily on managing and manipulating the soil resource base. An appropriately skilled workforce is critical to ensuring our natural resources are managed in an innovative and sustainable way.  From schools to universities, there is a need to examine what, how and to whom landscape management is being taught. We must also explore avenues for strengthening career pathways for students undertaking natural resource management studies. As a significantly urban-based population there is a widening disconnect with the important role the rural-based communities have in providing food and fibre to all Australians (and beyond our shores) and this must be corrected as a high priority.

Information, Science and Research

  • While Australia has some world class soil research and development, there is significant opportunity to improve the way our research effort is focussed, coordinated and delivered. Fundamental soil science, including highly specialised research, must be a priority as it acts as the foundation for all applied research. It is important to understand what questions need to be asked and by whom, how data collection is initiated and then collated and analysed, and how research findings are distributed to those who can benefit from them.  There is a need to understand the specific information requirements of land managers, including the scale and level of detail, and explore how those managers prefer to access this information and to tailor the delivery accordingly.

Other areas of focus

In addition to these drivers, the Advocate will also explore a number of other issues for possible inclusion in the final report, including but not limited to:

  • Describing/defining a healthy soil and how soil can attain a healthier status.
  • Understanding the importance of water and water efficiency in improving the health of a landscape, with likely emphasis on how best to retain water in soil.
  • Understanding the importance vegetation and the soil/plant interface in improving the health of a landscape
  • Communicating the role of Indigenous Australians in natural resource management
  • Investigating the learning and education requirements to effectively support future land management
  • Investigating mechanisms for the effective sharing of information
  • Investigating how best to recognise the important inputs of health, education, trade, mining, urban/regional development, science and national security into landscape/agricultural policy and coordinating these inputs at the highest level.
  • Investigating role of extension and centres of excellence in improving landscape management.

Next steps

Research and development priorities

Over the coming months, the Advocate and his Expert Advisory Panel will consult with a group of experts to formulate a set of cross-sectoral soil research and development priorities. This group comprises experts from universities, industry and state governments, specialising in soil chemistry and biology, spatial analysis, ecology, agricultural research and advocacy, natural resource management, hydrology and water governance, farming and human health. These priorities will be set out in detail in the Advocate’s final report to the Prime Minister.

Meetings and Events

The Advocate will continue to seek out opportunities for engaging with land managers, the general public and experts involved in natural resource management. To date the Advocate has pursued the following activities:

  • Keynote address to the National Committee on Soil and Terrain (NCST) about the future of Australia’s soil.
  • Meeting with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) about Australia’s soil information database and the recently released SoilMapp application.
  • Meeting with the National Landcare Facilitator to discuss strategic linkages between Landcare and the Advocate role.
  • Meeting with the Expert Advisory Panel of the Filling the Research Gap Program to discuss outcomes of research that has been funded so far, including research on soil carbon.
  • Meeting with senior executive staff from the Australia Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) to discuss research into agricultural productivity, soil health and biodiversity management, land use mapping and social drivers for soil management.
  • Meeting with the Director General of the Department of Agriculture and Food (WA) to discuss the role of the Advocate and how it can feed into addressing some of the challenges facing agriculture in Western Australia.
  • Meeting with senior executive staff of the Bureau of Meteorology to discuss the work of the Bureau, especially the measurement of Australia’s water assets.
  • Field trip to Goulburn (NSW) to meet with land managers participating in the Hawkesbury Nepean Catchment Management Authority’s Soil and Land Program.
  • Meetings with the Northern Territory’s Department of Land Resource Management and Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries,  and field trip to a near Darwin
  • Opening address at the Talkin’ Soil Health Conference in York (WA) and field visit to a Western Australia No-Till Farming Association (WANTFA) project.
  • Meeting with senior researchers at the University of Western Australia to discuss the direction of future research relating to soil.
  • Address as part of the Chairman’s Panel at The Australian Global Food Forum on Australia’s role in future global food security.
  • Meeting with the South Australian Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, Department of Primary Industries and Resources, and Regional Landcare Facilitators.
  • Meeting with senior staff of Geoscience Australia to discuss the collation and analysis of landscape data.
  • Attending various farming field days to explain the soil advocacy role.