The Locavore Edition Online

By Tess Hamilton

The world’s supply of food, water, energy and sustainable agriculture is under threat from climate change, the booming population, declining fresh water and soil degradation. Through the management of carbon stock in the world’s soil, scientists have coined the new term ‘soil security’ as the solution for many of the world’s environmental problems.

Soils low in carbon – particularly Australian soils – erode as water and wind move across them. Soils that are high in carbon are more resistant to erosion, retain more water and importantly produce more food. History shows the direct relationship between soil degradation, land productivity, and the prosperity of people. For example, severe famine as a result of soil degradation destroyed the Northern Mesopotamian Empire and historians are still debating whether the Roman Empire collapsed because of soil erosion and its effect on the decline of the Roman economy.

On July 17, 2012 experts from around the globe converged at the Soil Security Research Symposium held by The University of Sydney Faculty of Agriculture and Environment and the United States Studies Centre to discuss the problems of global soil degradation and soil carbon management.

Andrea Koch, the Program Leader on the Soil Carbon Initiative at The University of Sydney was one of the speakers at the symposium. Andrea grew up on a farm in South Australia and is passionate about bridging the gap between farmers, consumers, business and policy makers. She talked to us about soil security and what it means for Australia.

“Soil security refers to the maintenance or improvement of soil so that it can provide the ecosystem services upon which we rely including: food and fibre production, fresh water filtering and regulation, biodiversity and climate regulation.

“The key mechanism for securing soil is through land management and agricultural practices that maintain and increase soil carbon, which is a key indicator of soil security. Soil security is necessary to underpin food and water security, as well as increasing biodiversity and climate change abatement. Soil is at the center of solving these other environmental problems.”

Australia’s soils are varied and diverse. However, under cultivation since the introduction of European agricultural methods, Australian soils have lost at least half their soil carbon.

“Because our soils are weathered, they are more susceptible to degradation, and as such Australian farmers have had to work harder to look after their soils.”

Peter Wighton has been farming since he left school in 1976. He runs a harvesting business with his wife Jacinta in Springhurst, Victoria growing grains, canola, wheat, oats and he owns a small number of cattle. Peter hasn’t heard of soil security but thinks, “anything that raises awareness about farming soils would be a good idea.” He believes many farmers, like himself, need to learn more about soil.

“Farming practices have changed dramatically in the years I have been farming. Cultivation is almost a thing of the past, replaced with minimum or zero till. I’ve learned that however you farm the soil – it needs to be right. I have certainly seen organic corn at farmers’ markets that I would not eat.”

Peter looks to sources like The Break newsletter produced by the Department of Primary Industries, Victoria to access seasonal climate risk information to help maintain his farm business. He noted the good work continued by farmer organisations like Riverine Plains Inc who are dedicated to improving the productivity of broad acre farming systems in northeast Victoria and southern NSW, and the Kondinin Group, which provides independent information to assist farmers to make better choices for their farming enterprise.

Australian farmers are leading the world in farming practices that replenish carbon in soils. For example, using compost and compost tea (the liquid extract formed by steeping compost in water for 3–7 days) rather than commercial fertilisers, and pasture cropping (which is the practice of animals grazing off pasture growth through the winter and early spring, then removing them from the pasture so the crop can shoot up and the grain harvested).

By supporting the Australian farming community and putting soil on the national agenda we help to preserve and improve our future food production. In her article ‘Turning Dirt into Soil’ Andrea Koch identified five key measures to raise the profile of soil security and position Australia as a world leader.

1.Building soil carbon in soils must become a priority in the drive to increase food production to feed the growing world population. 2.Public policy must recognise agricultural soil as a national asset, and protect and rebuild this vital resource. 3.Farmers must be recognised as the stewards of the asset, and supported through policy measures in their role of managing the asset to rebuild soil carbon in addition to maximising yields of food and fibre. Building better connections between farmers and the science of soil carbon will play a critical role. 4.Agricultural research and development must recalibrate to address yield maximisation within a framework of soil security, preservation and conservation. 5.Critically, we must continue the scientific endeavour to understand soils and soil carbon. Soil science has been dismally underfunded for decades, partly in lieu of water and landscape research. When I say the science is ready, it is really the starting point. For soils to be the solution, we must pursue scientific knowledge of soils relentlessly and not rest on our laurels.

There is a global policy for climate change and biodiversity protection but there is no policy to secure the world’s soil. As such, we need to start thinking of soil as a solution and shifting our focus to the things we grow. We can do this by adding soil security to our vocabulary, thinking locally and learning where our food comes from, buying good local produce and building relationships within the community by connecting with the farmers growing our food.

Because the answers to these global problems are right under our feet.

Tess Hamilton loves good food and film and is fascinated by food history and culture. She studied media production in Melbourne and is passionate about sound, photography and earl grey tea. Read more at