More than 8 million hectares of NZ soil now digitally mapped

Landcare Research’s national soil mapping programme has now covered 8 million hectares, or 30% of the New Zealand land area, says soil scientist Sam Carrick.

More than one-quarter of New Zealand’s GDP is directly dependent on soil, which underpins both the productivity and health of New Zealand’s land and freshwater ecosystems.

Soils range in quality and texture and Landcare Research scientists have been researching, mapping, assessing and recording them to measure their condition, identify risks and share this information with a wide range of people, including farmers, community groups and councils.

They use a digital information system called S-map online.

S-map online started in the mid-2000s when there was a push to digitise paper soil mapping records and help provide a better understanding of the wide variety of soils by enabling access to information on historic and new soil records, says Carrick.

The primary focus until now has been mapping land with high production potential that is most likely to have the most intensive land use pressures. S-map has managed to map half of this land, he says.

The most recent soil mapping coverage is in the Grey Valley, West Coast and in the northern Hawke’s Bay.

Soil quality in New Zealand was included in the Our land 2018 environmental report released two months ago by the Ministry for the Environment. The report highlighted significant concerns about erosion, compaction and high levels of phosphorus impacting our soil quality and the need for more research.

The Our land 2018 report also identified urban expansion is having an important impact on New Zealand’s most versatile land.

“Only around 5 per cent of New Zealand soil is classed as highly versatile, with the potential to support a wide range of crops, so it’s important we are researching to understand exactly where these soils are and how best to care for them for future generations, ” says Carrick.

Over the next year, soil mapping will include areas in the Waikato and Wellington regions, as well as the Port Hills of Christchurch.

S-map online is widely used, with around 7,000 registered users downloading 35,000 soil fact sheets last year.

Source: Landcare Research

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Compost can be a hidden source of plastic pollution

The extensive use of all kinds of plastic in food production is a ticking time bomb because of the risks it poses to the environment and human health, says ESR Environmental Scientist Olga Pantos.

Dr Pantos says there is a growing public awareness of the risks posed by plastic in the marine environment but there is not the same level of knowledge about the risks plastics pose in the soil.

One potentially hidden source of plastic moving into the environment is via compost.

Dr Pantos says that even consumers who want to do the right thing with their plastic waste get confused about what they can recycle and what should go to waste.

Labelling is often hard to read and often harder to understand. She says increased use of biopolymers and plastic alternatives in food packaging makes it likely that the amount of plastic in green waste is increasing.

While some consumers might think they are making good decisions by choosing compostable and biodegradable labelled products, they can be just as harmful to the environment as conventional plastic if they are not disposed of properly.

Putting these products into compost may mean they are simply degrading to smaller pieces of plastic and making their way into the food chain.

A recent study in Germany found compost from supermarket waste had close to 900 pieces of microplastic in a one-kilogram sample.

Once the plastic gets into the compost it can have an impact on the biological function of the soil. Dr Pantos says the nature of plastics makes them effective in absorbing chemical contaminants, making them more toxic.

She says consumers are starting to become aware of the hidden plastic content in apparently harmless items like tea bags but she says there is still a lot to learn about how to make good choices as a consumer.

She says that per capita New Zealanders generate some of the highest amounts of plastic waste in the world.

Globally over 311 million tonnes of plastic was produced and most of that is single-use.

Olga Pantos, a senior scientist at Christchurch-based ESR Food, water and Biowaste group was involved in the recent survey of marine microplastics in Wellington.

Source: Institute of Environmental Science And Research

Economist and soil scientist at odds over moves to protect some land from developers

The release of Our Land 2018, the Ministry for the Environment’s report which deals with the state of New Zealand’s land resources, has triggered a debate between an economist and a soil scientist on Sciblogs.

The report shows the extent to which New Zealand’s urban sprawl is eating up some of the country’s most versatile land.

Dr Eric Crampton, Head of Research at the New Zealand Initiative, said he just doesn’t get the fixation with making sure nobody builds a home on agricultural land.

He sees no need for some land to be protected from developers, arguing that market mechanisms do the job well enough, thank you.

Pierre Roudier, a scientist in the Soils & Landscapes team at Landcare Research and a Principal Investigator at Te Pūnaha Matatini, disagrees.  Banning the development on our best soils makes sense because it acknowledges resources values that can’t be measured in economic terms.

Dr Crampton’s opinion post, syndicated from Offsetting Behaviour (it originally appeared HERE), cites a Radio New Zealand report (HERE) which said the Government plans to make it harder for councils to approve new homes and lifestyle blocks on productive land near urban areas.

The ministry report highlights that between 1990 and 2008, 29 per cent of new urban areas were built on some of the country’s most versatile land.

The Radio New Zealand report went on to note that lifestyle blocks were also having an impact – in 2013 those blocks covered 10 per cent of New Zealand’s best land – and quoted Environment Minister David Parker’s concerns.

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Professor Rich McDowell gives thoughts on new land report

AgResearch has posted comments from Professor Rich McDowell, its principal scientist and Chief Scientist for the Our Land and Water national science challenge, on the just-released report on the state of land in New Zealand.

The report can be read HERE.

Professor McDowell writes:

While this report does provide a snapshot of the state of the land as far as impacts, it is important to note that it does not provide insights into the trends in relation to phosphorus in the soil, and macroporosity of the soil – and how land use, and intensity of that use, contributes. Phosphorus in the soil is one measure, but there are other variables at play such as compaction of the soil, that will dictate whether there is phosphorus run-off into waterways to do damage.

What we do know is that the data for water quality (in regard to phosphorus) and sediment concentrations indicate that far more sites are showing improvements now (2004-2013) than before (1994-2003). This is despite changes in land use, land use intensity and indications that phosphorus under dairying is enriched, and macroporosity of the soil is impaired. These improvements may be due to greater awareness, farmers being more proactive or policy changes. Efforts include the isolation of critical source areas that contribute most phosphorus and sediment loss from farms or catchments, and targeting critical source areas with measures to mitigate these losses.

The question is always whether these efforts are enough to meet community aspirations of water quality. This is why the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge (hosted by AgResearch) is supporting work examining land use suitability, and providing indicators on what a parcel of land can produce, the potential of these land parcels to lose contaminants, and the effect of these contaminants on water according to a water quality objective. This work will also be expanded to examine objectives for soil.

You can read more about work in regard to land use suitability, and sources and flows of contaminants, at pages 17 and 18 HERE. 

Source: AgResearch

 

Urban-sprawl concerns raised in report which spotlights serious land-use issues

A report on the state of the country’s land has highlighted the impact of urban sprawl, the loss of important wetlands and emerging problems associated with soil compaction.

The Our land 2018 report, released by the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ today, confirms the need for more action to improve land management, Environment Minister David Parker says.

“I was particularly troubled by how much of our urban growth is occurring in our irreplaceable highly productive land.  Even in a country as lucky as New Zealand we only have limited quantities of these high-class soils,” he says.

Officials have been asked to start work on a National Policy Statement (NPS) for Versatile Land and High Class Soils to address issues such as the loss of prime market gardening land around Pukekohe, as Auckland expands, as well as the impact of lifestyle blocks on our most productive land.

“We have to ensure we have enough land to build the houses people need, but we must protect our most productive areas too.”

Another major concern was the finding that 44 per cent of sites tested had low macroporosity levels – in layperson’s language, that the soil was likely to be compacted.

“Healthy soil is like a sponge, full of holes that can absorb air and water. When it is compressed it can’t absorb water, which makes it more drought prone and nutrients are more likely to run off into waterways,” Mr Parker says.

The report is one of the most comprehensive yet on the state of New Zealand’s land.

“It brings together a range of issues such as soil erosion and quality, biodiversity, urban growth and waste. The connections between those issues and other aspects of the environment, such as our waterways and climate, are clear to see,” Mr Parker says.

The report found that New Zealand loses around 192 million tonnes of soil each year to erosion, of which 84 million is from pasture land.

Government, farmers and others with an interest in land have a role to play in better managing erosion-prone land.

“The Government’s billion trees planting programme, which focuses on the ‘right tree, right place, right time’ will help.

“The report also confirms the continued loss of our limited wetlands, which contain some of our most precious biodiversity, and filter contaminants from land. We must do more to protect these.”

Mr Parker has also asked officials to begin working on a more comprehensive freshwater national policy statement to address concerns about sediment, wetlands and estuaries.

He said the new report must spark a greater effort to build our knowledge of land, because there are significant data gaps which must be filled.

Source: Minister for the Environment

‘Farm of the future’ project marries microbiology and machine learning

Science Daily – looking into how farms of the future will feed a projected 9.8 billion people by 2050 – reports on a “smart farm” project which marries microbiology and machine learning. The aim is to reduce the need for chemical fertilisers and enhance soil carbon uptake, thus improving the long-term viability of the land while increasing crop yields.

The report features a farm in Arkansas, growing soybeans, corn and rice, that is aiming to be the most scientifically advanced farm in the world.

Soil samples are run through powerful machines to have their microbes genetically sequenced, drones are flying overhead taking hyperspectral images of the crops, and soon supercomputers will be crunching the massive volumes of data collected.

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), working with the University of Arkansas and Glennoe Farms, hope this project, which brings together molecular biology, biogeochemistry, environmental sensing technologies, and machine learning, will revolutionise agriculture and create sustainable farming practices that benefit both the environment and farms.

If successful, the scientists envision being able to reduce the need for chemical fertilisers and enhance soil carbon uptake, thus improving the long-term viability of the land, while at the same time increasing crop yields.

Understanding the role of microbes in the health of the soil is a major focus of the research.

“Microbes are a critical component of soil health and productivity,” said scientist Ben Brown.

“By understanding how microbes work and modifying the environments where they function, we can eventually engineer microbial communities to enhance soil productivity. What’s more, Berkeley Lab’s research is showing that healthy soils are more resilient to system shocks such as climate change, drought, and insects.”

A key challenge for advancing these goals is the recognition of the significant spatial variability of soil properties within a single field and between fields.

The “AR1K Smart Farm” project has brought together a range of expertise to focus on a 1,000-acre farm near Stuttgart, Arkansas, as a test bed.

The project is co-led by Haruko Wainwright, an expert in environmental monitoring and estimation methodologies in Berkeley Lab’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Area, and Ben Brown, an expert in machine learning and microbial analysis in the Biosciences Area.

Science Daily notes the world’s population is forecast by the United Nations to grow to 9.8 billion by 2050. Feeding these people will require raising food production by more than 70 per cent.

Yet industrialised farming practices have depleted a majority of the USA’s agricultural land of active carbon and a balanced microbial ecosystem. This is reflected in measurements of organic matter that average only 1 to 2 per cent in most farmland, compared to historic levels of around 10 per cent.

“Our farmers are dependent on a heavy prescription of genetically modified seeds, fertiliser, chemical herbicides, and pesticides to render a profitable crop,” said Jay McEntire, manager of Glennoe Farms.

“For the farmer this dependency raises their input costs and increases their economic risk. For the landowner depleted soils and chemical regimes represent risks for both economic and environmental sustainability.”

Building on Berkeley Lab’s ENIGMA and Microbes to Biomes initiatives, the project scientists aim to develop and evaluate microbial amendments, which can be thought of as “probiotics for soil,” to replace the carbon, phosphorus, and other nutrients that have been lost.

As Science Daily points out, repeated use of bulk fertilisers and chemicals over the years have depleted the soils and caused other environmental damage, creating a vicious cycle that makes the current model of industrial agriculture potentially unsustainable — and increasingly expensive as more and more chemical and bulk salt-based fertiliser additives are required each year.

What’s more, the world’s supply of phosphorus is limited.

But Berkeley Lab is pursuing a microbial solution.

“The good news is, there are lots and lots of microbes that have enzymes called phytases that are capable of resolubilizing inorganic phosphorus,” which is essentially the “leftovers” in the ground after plants take up what they need from the rock phosphorus, says Brown.

While the concept of microbial amendments is not new — commercial products are on the market — a predictive understanding of how the soil microbiome interacts with and affects plant growth is lacking.

“There are millions of species of microbes per cubic centimeter of soil,” Brown said.

“As you approach the plant root and its interior tissues, you go from millions to dozens. So plants do an exceptional job of farming their microbiomes. They release materials, including antimicrobial compounds, to selectively kill undesirable microbes, and they release food to incentivise beneficial microbes. It’s a highly symbiotic and enormously complex interaction, and we understand almost nothing about it.”

The challenge will be in figuring out the cause-and-effect relationships between the microbial amendments and plant growth.

“You’re trying to connect events at timescales relevant to molecules to events that occur over the course of a six-month growing season,” said Brown. “You’re trying to bridge something like 18 orders of magnitude across spatiotemporal scales. That is seriously nontrivial.”

Hyperspectral sensors on the drones will be able to detect light reflectance from the plants and see hundreds of channels of spectra, from the visible to near infrared.

“The human eye has only three channels — red, green, and blue,” said Wainwright. “You can see if a leaf looks yellow or green. But with hundreds of channels you can measure carbon and nitrogen content, and you can tell a lot about plant health, plant disease, or leaf chemistry, all of which affect crop yield.”

In addition, surface geophysical techniques are used to map soil electrical properties in 3-D, which greatly controls soil microbial activities.

Machine learning is the tool that will tie all the data together.

“The team science approach pioneered at Berkeley Lab is being put to use to integrate all the information within the machine learning context,” said Wainwright. “Our ultimate goal is to provide actionable intelligence to the farming community.”

Currently farmers have no such information, even though services and products have sprung up providing various “big data” solutions.

“All the private companies have a big incentive to lock their own data sets, so they can’t be used in conjunction with other data sets,” Wainwright said. “That’s where the public sector, like Berkeley Lab, can step in. We’re not incentivised by profit.”

The scientific challenge is formidable but not insurmountable.

“We think it’s a tractable problem, and we’re hoping to prove it in the next year,” Brown said.

The Berkeley Lab team is collaborating with the University of Arkansas with support from Laboratory Directed Research and Development funding and collaboration with Glennoe Farms, the landowners, and M2Capital Partners LLC.

Source: Science Daily. 

Our precious soil – are we treating it like dirt?

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Registrations are being accepted here for  a discussion on soil and soil policy at Lincoln University involving broadcaster Kim Hill and a group of expert panellists.

The question at issue: are we letting our most precious resource slip through our fingers?

The panellists who will draw on their extensive expertise to discuss this question are:

• Trish Fraser: Plant & Food Research

• Ants Roberts: Ravensdown

• Mike Hedley: Massey University

• Andy MacFarlane: Farmer/Company Director

Event Details

Date: Thursday 22 March

Time: 7.30pm, doors open 6.30pm

Venue: Stewart Building, Lincoln University (no. 62 or C3 on the campus map)

Cost: $5 koha. Refreshments and nibbles provided. (Alcoholic beverages will be provided from a cash bar.)

Biographies of the panellists can be found here.