THE new Soils Advocate should acknowledge the advances already made, writes DAVID SMITH
Last week's appointment by Prime Minister Julia Gillard of a Soils Advocate, former Governor-General Michael Jeffery, is a great aim.
But I have concerns about what Major-General Jeffery understands about our soils.
He alleges more than 60 per cent of soils are degraded; fertility is declining; too little attention is given to water penetration and use; our grazing does not consider the good of the plants; and alternatives to chemicals and mineral fertilisers - organic-style production - have not been considered.
He is ignoring the successful work over the past few decades of an army of people in respected organisations: state departments, CSIRO, farmer groups, Landcare, with teams of scientists, engineers, economists.
Some will remember the terrible water erosion of soils in southern Australia's wheatbelt during the 1940s, which left huge craters; and in Victoria, when the wind blew from the northwest the Mallee came to town.
But modern, productive farms have resulted from professionals working with farmers generally receptive to new knowledge.
Across the south, properly fertilised winter-growing legumes - natural nitrogen fixers - have been a key, hence higher nitrogen and better soil structure.
In other words holistic management.
And the role of chemicals and mineral fertiliser have had intense scrutiny: scientific studies have shown these are important in commercial agriculture as alternatives are often inadequate or costly.
This all contradicts Major-General Jeffery's picture.
The mode of operation of scientists is: listen and think and watch; test new ideas; pass information to farmers. The past few years have unearthed some great ones: laser land levelling, greatly reduced - even to zero - tillage. No doubt Major-General Jeffery's Soils for Life organisation is identifying things that are worth studying further, though many will be found to be closely related to common practice.
There must be agreement as to where we are: this is 2012, not 1952. The Soils Advocate must become acquainted with current knowledge. By ignoring history and getting science wrong and dispersing our efforts we can easily waste effort and money.
- Dr David Smith is a former Victorian director-general of agriculture