Saving Australia’s Soil – from the National Soil Advocate

By the Honourable Michael Jeffery

Australian agriculture faces the global imperative to do more with less—less arable land, less water, lower inputs—while building resilience to an often harsh climate. Australian farmers can only achieve real productivity gains over the long-term protecting the soil, water, plant and animal assets that underpin Australia’s food production. Our ability to remain food independent, a net exporter of food and fibre, and an exporter of good agricultural land practice knowledge also enhance our national security.

Many areas of the world, including Australia, are facing substantial soil, water, food and nutrition problems. Globally, the rapid scale of soil loss far outpaces the natural cycle of soil formation. At this rate, one prediction is that much of the world’s agricultural soils will be gone within the next 200 years.

The Australian Government’s National Advocate for Soil Health, former Governor-General Major General the Hon. Michael Jeffery, AC, AO (Mil), CVO, MC (Retd). Jeffrey is also Landcare Australia’s patron.

In December 2012, the Australian Government, in recognising the significance of soil in our daily lives and the impending international security implications of soil loss being connected to food and water shortages around the globe, appointed a National Advocate for Soil Health.  This was a world first in terms of elevating soil health to a level of national significance.

The role of the Soil Advocate was developed to provide strong leadership and advocacy on the importance of healthy soil, water and vegetation, and the underlying benefits for all Australians. I was honoured to be appointed as Australia’s first Soil Advocate and have appreciated every moment in the role. I am also grateful for the support which I have received from the Landcare Community throughout Australia and wish to thank you all for making the role effective and successful.

In my time as Soil Advocate, I have met with several thousand farmers, scientists, Indigenous interest groups, policy makers, politicians, consultants, students and community groups. All are actively working to meet land management challenges across the country. I have seen first-hand the merging of new and old skills and technology, the collaboration of disciplines and the willingness to work together towards shared challenges. I am in no doubt—that if we harness and develop our considerable expertise—we will build healthy, well managed soils, which are resilient to climate change and support productive ecological and agricultural systems over the long-term.

By so doing we can show the rest of the world how ancient and inherently infertile soils in a difficult climate can be managed to meet the world’s Sustainable Development Goals for land and soils.

However, the role of the Soil Advocate provides much more than another public speaking platform. It is above all a unique avenue for farmers to express their views and concerns, and share their knowledge with a person who is vitally interested in protecting their soils. The role established a direct avenue of multi-lateral engagement and discussion between farmers, the scientific research community and governments. Also of note is the strong international interest in the role by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the USA, China, New Zealand, Rwanda and Fiji.

I believe there are substantial benefits for all Australians from a more focused and integrated approach to the health of our soil.  A regenerated agricultural landscape will ensure the whole community will be healthier in terms of the food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink.

In December this year I will submit my Soil Advocate report to the Prime Minister. It summarises my key findings and recommendations and if approved will help shape the future policy direction necessary to achieve good soil health in Australia. I look forward to being able to share its contents with communities as across the Landcare movement.

Michael Jeffery
National Soil Advocate

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