New soil test hopes to increase land sustainability

Australian scientists think they may be on track to developing a soil test that can indicate how to unlock the biological potential of the soil and lead to more sustainable use of soil internationally.

The researchers, from the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), claim that with further investigation they can develop a test that can analyse the state of land – indicating whether it is improving, stable or getting worse.

The tests are to be developed through investigation of the micro-organisms and natural chemical processes that control soil functions. “We know what’s in the soil – we just don’t know precisely what it does, how all these creatures and processes interact, exactly how they combine to recycle nutrients and energy within the soil,” explains Dr Matt Colloff of CSIRO Entomology.

Over the next three years the CSIRO research team will analyse genes of microbes in the soil that yield the natural chemicals, which unlock soil nutrients. “What we are testing for is whether key genes in nutrient cycling processes are present and being expressed,” Dr Colloff told edie. If, for example, ammonia is not being converted into soil nitrate then they predict they can identify if the soil is lacking in some area. Through such investigation the scientists hope to develop tests that will analyse landscape and be of benefit to land managers.

These tests should give farmers and other land managers a realistic measure of whether their management tactics are making the situation better or worse for the first time, commented Dr Steve Rogers of CIRSO Land and Water. The team feel these tests will be of benefit to many business processes, predicting that it would be of assistance to mining companies, national parks, environmental authorities as well as to farmers. They hope the tests will help to identify areas of their management scheme that need to change, eventually increasing land sustainability.

“We would see that our test would give as comprehensive a picture of soil biogeochemical processes as is possible to get at present,” Dr Colloff claimed.

Although the research group plan on the tests being available internationally, as well as in Australia, there are no plans yet on what format the tests will take or on how they will be marketed to international consumers.

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