The 2015 International Year of Soils (IYS) was a frantic time for folk involved in better understanding, managing and preserving soil resources. Some of this activity can be found on the FAO site (http://www.fao.org/soils-2015/en/). Here at ACIAR, several soil-focused projects have started, or have advanced greatly in their planning, in Kiribati, Tuvalu, PNG, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.
One of the achievements of the international community in the year was the production of the Status of the World’s Soil Resources (http://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/c6814873-efc3-41db-b7d3-2081a10ede50/). Prepared by the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS) and released on December 5 (World Soils Day (every year!)), it is like a “first approximation” echoing the IPCC reports. The report focuses on the 10 main threats to soil function: erosion, organic carbon loss, nutrient imbalance, acidification, contamination, waterlogging, compaction, sealing, salinity and loss of soil biodiversity. Four priorities for action are:
· Minimize further degradation of soils and restore the productivity of soils that are already degraded in regions where people are most vulnerable;
· Stabilize global stores of soil organic matter, including both soil organic carbon and soil organisms;
· Stabilize or reduce global use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertiliser, while increasing fertiliser use in regions of nutrient deficiency; and,
· Improve our knowledge about the state and trend of soil conditions.
According to FAO Director-General Jose’ Graziano Da Silva, “the main message of this first edition is that, while there is cause for optimism in some regions, the majority of the world’s soil resources are in only fair, poor or very poor condition. Today, 33 percent of land is moderately to highly degraded due to the erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution of soils. Further loss of productive soils would severely damage food production and food security, amplify food-price volatility, and potentially plunge millions of people into hunger and poverty. But the report also offers evidence that this loss of soil resources and functions can be avoided. Sustainable soil management, using scientific and local knowledge and evidence-based, proven approaches and technologies, can increase nutritious food supply, provide a valuable lever for climate regulation and safeguarding ecosystem services”.
Of course, in some places this understanding is somewhat scant. Perhaps the region relevant to Australia in which there is the least available information is the Southwest Pacific.
The Regional Assessment of Soil Change in the Southwest Pacific covers the culturally and biophysically diverse 22 island nations of the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia (Figure 1). Data on soil conditions and threats is dominated by sources from Australia and New Zealand. This does not reflect the interests of the authors (mostly from Australia and New Zealand) who all went to great lengths to gather reputable information from all partner countries, but rather the dearth of peer reviewed material on soils from the other partner countries. So, at the Southwest Pacific regional scale what has an improving trend? – erosion (except where logging and clearing occurs) and contamination. What's getting worse? – acidification, nutrient imbalance (too much N and P in Australia and NZ, mining of nutrients in other areas) and soil sealing and capping (urban/industrial expansion). The issues for which there is not a clear trend, though remain a major problem in some areas are organic carbon change and loss of biodiversity. Special mention is made of atoll islands, for which, at present, there is very limited soil science expertise available to help develop more productive and sustainable agricultural systems. In reviewing the management of freshwater lenses on small Pacific atoll islands, it was remarked that they are some of the most vulnerable aquifer systems in the world. This conclusion applies equally to the soil and food production systems on atoll islands.
So, what's next? The IYS stimulated a lot of interest in the role of soils in the world. Having put together a first assessment of the status of soil resources, there is a need to reflect on where the major gaps are in our understanding of condition, trend and threats, particularly in the Pacific. There needs to be an international effort and to assist governments set priorities and galvanize action at all levels towards sustainable soil management.
2016 is the International Year of Pulses (http://www.fao.org/pulses-2016/en/). Pulses grow in soil.
Figure 1) Nations in the Southwest Pacific region and the extent of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesian cultures. FAO and ITPS (2015): Status of the World’s Soil Resources (SWSR) – Main Report.Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, Rome, Italy (accessed 20 Dec 2015)