Australia's Chief Scientist

Official opening of the Soil Security Research Symposium

17 July 2012

Thank you for inviting me here today to officially open the 2012 Agriculture Research Symposium about Soil Security.

Since beginning my role as Chief Scientist, I have strongly advocated for the importance of keeping agriculture alive and kicking in this country and not just for now but into the unforeseeable future too.

At the G8 summit on Food Security in July 2009, the statement noted:

Food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture must remain a priority issue …. Effective food security actions must be coupled with adaptation and mitigation measures in relation to climate change, sustainable management of water, land, soil and other natural resources, including the protection of biodiversity.

We know that Agriculture is a national priority however it will probably not surprise you then that only half of one per cent of university students take agricultural science. In 2010 we had only 743 graduates in agricultural science. That same year, approximately 4500 agricultural science jobs were advertised[6].

This is not just a supply and demand issue – we also need to remember thatAustralia’s aid program is to be focused on health outcomes and agriculture (food security).  Declining student enrolments in Agricultural Science (down 31% between 2002 and 2010) and Forestry (the total taught to students in all undergraduate degrees is down 45% since 2002 to a grand total of about 53 EFTSL) impacts not just our Australian producers and economy but also our foreign policy.

In Australia, we are in such a unique position. We have incredibly variable climates from the tropical to freezing, our biodiversity is an array of juxtapositions from deserts to coast lines, lush hinterlands to harsh bushlands, mountains and mining pits.

This biodiversity not only makes us resource rich but means we have the potential to understand so many different landscapes. By harnessing this diversity we can learn how to make more than our current 10% of land arable, be able farm in deserts, decrease our mass of salient soil. The possibilities are endless and not only will this mean we are increasing our food productivity but we will also be bettering our way of life.

The relationships we can develop with countries that have similar ecological challenges to us, such asIsraelwho we collaborate with already in terms of water usage, will be of great importance.

Not only this but the knowledge and aid we can provide will not only improve the conditions of human lives but will earn us our seat at the global table, where we are welcome as contributors not importers of know how.

Soil plays a very important part in all of this. Within the biodiversity context we know that the amount of each type of organic carbon in Australian agricultural soils varies significantly.

In rainforests for example, soil organic carbon can be greater than 10 per cent, while in many poorer soils or soils which are heavily exploited, levels are typically less than one per cent.

I only recently became familiar with the term Soil Security discovering that it is a new concept which is good otherwise I wouldn’t have been doing my title any justice.

Soil Security recognises the hugely significant role soil plays in big processes like climate change, biodiversity, food and human population health. It represents groundbreaking thinking and I am of the understanding that it is being pioneered right here, at theUniversityofSydney.

Soil is intrinsically linked to more things in our life than most people realise. I read somewhere the other day that:

“To the farmer, soil is where crops grow. To the engineer, soil is a foundation to build. To the ecologist, soil supports and connects ecosystems and to the archaeologist, soil holds clues to past cultures.”

I think this encapsulates nicely just how important soil is to our past, present and future, it is the foundation for all of humanity.

The importance of this research and the pioneering work being done out of this university and in conjunction with the United States Centre at this University will have wide spread impact in the future.

I understand from the research being undertaken the evidence is suggesting that by increasing the levels of carbon in soil, the quality of the soil and ground water increases and by this method of sequestering carbon in the soil, carbon emissions will be decreased.

Addressing climate change, as you are all aware, is not the easiest of tasks both legislatively (to put it kindly) and scientifically. But it must be addressed and within the context of this symposium, climate change is a major issue that does and will continue to affect our food industry. It’s noteworthy that CSIRO scientists are already working on the basis that we need to factor carbon emissions into our food sustainability as part of the work conducted by the Sustainable Agriculture Flagship.

The Flagship aims to reduce the carbon footprint ofAustralia’s land use whilst achieving the productivity gains needed for prosperous agricultural and forest industries – and global food security.

The national challenge goal of the Sustainable Agriculture Flagship of CSIRO will be to secure Australian agricultural and forestry industries through increasing productivity by 50% and reducing net carbon emissions per unit of food and fibre by at least 50% between now and 2030 through a mix of productivity growth, emissions reduction and carbon storage in soils and vegetation.[1]

As part of this Flagship a Soil Carbon Research Program was commissioned to assess soil carbon across Australia. The program commenced on the 30th of April 2009 and only finished a couple of weeks ago on the 30th of June. It will be very interesting to examine the findings and recommendations of this program and how it fits in with the work and ideas of this symposium.

What is clear is that as a result ofAustralia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and our commitment to reducing carbon emissions, a critical need exists to develop a sound and scientifically defensible definition of the potential forAustralia’s soils to sequester carbon.

This symposium is important to bring together international experts to engage in discussions around the political, economical, social and scientific impacts of soil security and hopefully come out the other side with a coherent soil strategy.

This outcome would improve the world’s soil resources to ensure continuity of quality food, fibre and fresh water, making major contributions to energy and climate sustainability and maintaining biodiversity and the overall protection of ecosystem goods and services.

It is my pleasure to be here to open this research symposium and I wish it every success in developing sustainable and prosperous programs.





[1] Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation –