Emeritus Professor Robert White, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, The University of Melbourne. email@example.com
In the 2006 book ‘Back from the Brink’, farmer Peter Andrews says, ‘we need the scientific community to accept that the approach it has adopted to Australia’s landscape problems so far have been wrong’ (p.7) and that ‘we certainly have to abandon the idea that scientists can provide a solution to our landscape’s problems’ (p.13).
In short, forget about the decades of scientific research into land management if you want to rehabilitate the land.
In 2017, Charles Massy published ‘Call of the Reed Warbler’,
deplores modern industrial farming and asks a rhetorical question
about ‘established sources of knowledge—department of agriculture people
the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization
(CSIRO)’, claiming that ‘they’re just so far behind’ (p.179).
No soil scientist wants to see land degradation, and Australia has
decades of research into land and farm management, which has had
So why is there a clash of cultures when both parties want the same
1. Poor soil science communication
Soil science has not been well communicated, with the majority of
research results staying in journal papers. A farmer would need to pay
for access, then
try and wade through the academic language, and then try to work out
how the research applies to their situation. Accessing soil science
certainly not frictionless. Formerly, extension officers bridged the
gap between the field and the lab, but funding cuts have removed most
2. Resulting dismissal of soil science research
Perhaps because it is difficult to access, interpret, and use
existing research, this research is ignored or dismissed. This is a
shame because Australia
has a wealth of research into interactions among soils, crops,
pastures and animals.
Different systems have been studied for many years using a range of
biophysical and chemical methods and modelling. For example, Marston and
first unravelled the role of cobalt and copper in ‘bush sickness’ of ruminants, Prescott mapped
the extensive distribution of Australian soils, Norrish
elucidated the behaviour of soil clays, Rovira explored the management of soil-borne diseases,
Lee and Foster showed how soil fauna affected soil structure, and Baldock and co-workers
described the dynamics of soil organic carbon and its measurement.
Ignoring this work perpetuates the view that the science underpinning
landscape management has not progressed since the early 1800s, a view
not borne out
by the evidence of many studies.
3. Limited research and claims about regenerative agriculture
Australia’s National Advocate for Soil Health admits in a letter to the Prime Minister
that ‘the reasons why the innovative methods developed by Soils for
Life and other farmers are working so well are generally not well
science. More research is needed into the microbiological processes
in the plant and soil biomes thought to be responsible for the success
regenerative farming practices.’
Additionally, some examples of success within regenerative
agriculture contain dubious claims that sound warning bells for soil
scientists. For example,
in Call of the Reed Warbler, Massy (p.201) cites a case study where
‘despite no superphosphate for over 35 years, phosphorus and other trace
and mineral levels have risen substantially, soil pH having jumped
from high acidity levels to nearly neutral’. Bearing in mind the law of
of matter, how can these increases have occurred in a production
system unless there were substantial inputs of materials from off-site
In another example, Massy (p.140) states that a 1% increase in soil
carbon (C) allows 144,000 litres of extra water to be stored per ha to
0.3 m depth.
This corresponds to an increase in the amount of stored water to 0.3
m depth of 14.4 mm. Here, ‘traditional’ soil scientists start to ask
as no information is given about the soil type for this claim. We
know that the effect of organic matter in increasing soil water storage is more important in sandy than clay soils. However, in France Morlat and Chaussod looked at soil carbon after applications of compost and manure
on a sandy soil (86% sand). Compared to the control soil, organic C
approximately doubled from 0.63 to 1.21% for soil treated with 20 t/ha
cow manure each year for 28 years. But the increase in available
water in the top 0.3 m was only 7.5 mm after 28 years, which is a much
than that claimed by Massy. Knowing the soil and treatment
conditions under which Massy’s result occurred would be enormously
helpful so that it could
be implemented elsewhere. But these details were not supplied.
4. Resulting caution from soil scientists
As with enthusiastic farmers who have tried new methods and had
success, soil scientists too are excited by unusual or extreme behaviour
systems. However, they need information about the conditions under
which unusual results are obtained.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a soil scientist in 2019 willing to
roll out a new land management practice using data from one trial at one
site. If something
works, we need to determine whether it can work in other climates,
soil conditions and production systems. We also need to be careful about
Sub clover is a case in point of the latter. The widespread adoption
in southern Australia of pastures based on sub clover (Trifolium
led to accelerated acidification in soils that were poorly buffered.
However, field research
has evolved from relatively simple plot-based experiments to
large-scale ecosystems studies. This progression demonstrates that soil
not been static in their thinking. The science has evolved and
continues to do so. Some regenerative agriculture practices could well
be the next sub
clover example, that looks good to start with until you realize on a
wider scale that you should have done more research.
First, we need to get over this ‘clash of cultures’ and collaborate.
Australia’s soil advocate calls for ‘collaboration between scientists
farmers to build knowledge, collate the evidence to support
successes and improvements and promote the wider use of regenerative
Let’s work together to understand how and where regenerative
agriculture works, identify possible problems, and work out the economic
is a business. If a practice is not economic for the farmer, it
Second, soil scientists need to communicate in a language that
farmers and their champions in the media understand. This does not mean
dumbing down the
science, but it does mean scientists must challenge unorthodox views
and seek explanations using language that an intelligent layperson can
Third, we need true engagement from the lab to the field: that is,
farmers, community groups and scientists working together to devise
that halt degradation, improve soil quality and are economically
viable. We have had such programs in the past. For example, the
Systems program, led by Meat and Livestock Australia in conjunction
with other funding partners, was a 6-year program of collaboration between farmers and researchers with many insights gained from working on farmers’ properties. Let’s not ignore the good work such programs have done.
Working together we can understand how best to manage our land,
providing substantial benefits to Australian farmers, international
science and the Australian
This article was originally published as a journal paper. Alisa Bryce collaborated with the author
to convert the paper into this article for wider distribution in the media.
- Andrews, P. Back from the Brink; ABC Books: Sydney, Australia, 2006.
- Massy, C. Call of the Reed Warbler; University of Queensland Press: Brisbane, Australia, 2017.
- Marston, H.R.; Lines, E.W.; Thomas, R.G.; McDonald, I.W. Copper
and cobalt in ruminant animals. Nature 1938, 141, 398–400.
- Prescott, J.A. A climatic index for the leaching factor in soil
formation. J. Soil Sci. 1950, 1, 9–19.
- Norrish, K. The swelling of montmorillonite. Discuss. Faraday
Soc. 1954, 18, 120–134.
- Rovira, A. The impact of soil and crop management practices on
soil-borne root diseases and wheat yields. Soil Use Manag. 1990, 6,
- Lee, K.E.; Foster, R.C. Soil fauna and soil structure. Aust. J.
Soil Res. 1991, 29, 745–775. http://www.publish.csiro.au/sr/SR9910745
- Luo, Z.; Wang, E.; Baldock, J.; Xing, H. Potential soil organic
carbon stock and its uncertainty under various cropping systems in
Soil Res. 2014, 52, 463–475.
- Soils for Life. Available online: www.soilsforlife.org.au
(accessed on 11 February 2019).
- Bauer, A.; Black, A.L. Organic carbon effects on available water
capacity of three soil textural groups. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 1992, 56,
- Morlat, R.; Chaussod, R. Long-term additions of organic
amendments in a Loire Valley vineyard. I. Effects on properties of a
calcareous sandy soil.
Am. J. Enol. Vitic. 2008, 59, 353–363.
- Williams, C. Soil acidification under clover pasture. Aust. J.
Exp. Agric. 1980, 20, 561–567. http://www.publish.csiro.au/an/EA9800561
- Mason, W.K.; Lodge, G.M.; Allan, C.J.; Andrew, M.H.; Johnson,
T.; Russell, B.; Simpson, I. An appraisal of Sustainable Grazing
Systems: The program,
the triple bottom line impacts and the sustainability of grazing
systems. Aust. J. Exp. Agric. 2003, 43, 1061–1082.
- White, R. E.; Andrew M. Orthodox soil science versus alternative
philosophies: A clash of cultures in a modern context.
Sustainability2019, 11, 2919;
Emeritus Professor Robert White
Author of ‘Principles and Practice of Soil Science’ 4e, ‘Understanding Vineyard Soils’ 2e, and ‘Soils for Fine Wines’
Consultant in soils to the wine industry; Honorary life member Soil Science Australia
Honorary member International Union of Soil Sciences