Soil data to help sustainably grow our food into the future

By Jeda PalmerNovember 24th, 2022

Soil is at the centre of our lives – it’s keeping us alive, literally! So it’s important we look after the soil that looks after us. A big part of that is access to quality soil data. A new collaborative initiative, the Australian National Soil Information System (ANSIS), is aiming to do just that – provide online access to shared, nationally consistent soil data and information. ANSIS will give us a better understanding of our soils, enabling us to better manage them.

Improved access to soil data will have benefits beyond the farm. Image: Jeda Palmer

Soil is important, especially for growing our food

Soil is critical for Australian farmers to grow our food. A dynamic and living environment, soil provides a source of nutrients and water and the structural support for plants to grow and systems to flourish.

From Western Australia’s sandy soils to Queensland’s black cracking clays, agricultural soils around Australia vary considerably. Different soils need different management practices to sustain and improve them. For example, some soil could benefit by adding organic matter to make it more fertile. However, other soil could be improved by using minimal cultivation to reduce compaction.

By improving their soil, farmers can increase the amount of food they can grow. This doesn’t just benefit farmers. It can also help the environment, by creating healthier soil ecosystems and minimising environmental degradation including erosion.

Farmers and land managers regularly make decisions around how best to increase agricultural productivity. The health of the soil is often at the centre of this decision making. Soil health and productivity is vital for their business and their future. To be able to make the best decisions, farmers need timely and relevant soil data, information, and expertise.

Currently soil data are collected by different organisations, using different methods and stored in different ways. This can make the information difficult to access, compare and use. Nationally-consistent, timely and accessible soil data is important to support effective land development and management decisions.

ANSIS will provide users with access to soil data from across Australia.

A new soil data and information system

CSIRO is using novel processes and technologies to develop the Australian National Soil Information System (ANSIS). This new system will improve online access and use of shared, nationally consistent soil data and information.

“Improving access to soil data and information is key to sustainably managing Australia’s soil,” says CSIRO soil scientist and Manager of National Soil Information, Peter Wilson.

“Productive, healthy and resilient soil means more economic, environmental and social benefits. Not just for farmers, but for the wider Australian community.”

The new system will have tools and applications, for example online soil maps, that enable discovery, visualisation, and use of soil data and information products. The data that will sit behind these tools and applications will be federated (standardised) from different sources such as state governments and the agricultural industry, or from a central source such as historical CSIRO soil data.

It will see soil data and information standards that allow national data integration and interoperability, encouraging better collaboration through improved governance and protocols.

“The data in the new system will be trusted, high quality, easy to access and use and publicly available – it will be a one stop shop to find out about soil data and information across Australia”, says Mr Wilson.

For more than three decades, CSIRO has played a key role in developing and delivering soil information systems. This work provides a strong foundation from which to build this new improved ANSIS system. In the current project, CSIRO is collaborating with government, research organisations, industry, the private sector, and the community.

Farmers, land managers and policy makers will all have access to information to improve decision making.

Helping us all better understand soil

While some land managers already collect soil data on their farms, that data is not always used to its full potential.

By using the new soil information system, farmers, agricultural advisors and the agricultural industry will have access to more and improved soil data and be better placed to sustainably manage the soil on which they rely.

For example, by using a new benchmarking tool that uses ANSIS data, farmers and their agricultural advisors will be able to compare the condition of their soil with a similar soil type or other soils in their region. They could then use this information to assess the impact of their current land management practices or to consider opportunities for change and improvement. Land managers will be able to monitor how their soil has changed over time and utilise data to look at the best model for environmentally friendly and sustainable soil management and to gain required finance and market access credentials.

The new soil information system is not just for farmers, agricultural advisors and the agricultural sector. It will help all Australians to better understand the importance of soil. It will enable them to make better decisions about managing this precious natural resource.

For example, ANSIS will enable researchers to better understand the way our soil works, its role in climate change adaptation and mitigation, and the impact that we are having on soil.

It can provide policy makers with data and information to inform decision making. This information can underpin effective policies and programs to ensure our soil is sustainably used and enhanced for future generations.

ANSIS will be available from 2023. Check out ansis.net for more information.

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