Soil is too often seen as “just dirt,” says Dr. Oliver Knox. On the other hand, scientific perspectives may dissect the soil into its component parts and overlook the larger importance of the relationships between these parts.
The UNE Associate Professor of Soil Systems Biology argues for a higher view of soil, as the largest living ecosystem on the planet and the foundation of all human endeavour.
Soils have received new attention in recent years due to their ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Dr. Knox has reservations about this narrow focus.
When addressing the Gwydir Regional Carbon Forum on Wednesday August 3, Dr Knox will not present a specific case for soil carbon. Instead, it will present the case for building carbon-rich soil systems.
“I’m not sure how much carbon can be put into the ground, and I’m not sure that should be our goal,” he says. “I think we should be looking for ways to protect and nurture our soil ecosystems, rather than focusing on one particular part of them.”
“As long as we focus on practice systems that have the goal of protecting this precious and limited resource, we are headed in the right direction.”
Dr. Knox has gained local fame as a proponent of the “Soil Your Undies” method of visualizing soil health. The method is refreshingly simple: Participants bury cotton underwear in different soils, then dig them up after eight weeks to assess how much the cotton has degraded.
In healthy soil, vigorous microbial activity will have returned much of the cotton to the soil. Sometimes only the elastic waistband remains. In less healthy soils with less ability to recycle nutrients, degradation is visibly reduced.
The Dr Knox Soil Your Undies Challenges have been running since 2018, in collaboration with CottonInfo, UNE SMART Farms and UNE Discovery. Through the challenges, he has graphically demonstrated to over 500 groups of farmers, schools, and Landcare groups the nutrient-cycling power of healthy, living soil. Soil your Undies has also made its way to Africa.
His work on this and other programs has earned Dr. Knox nominations for the 2022 CSD Cotton Researcher of the Year and the General Jeffrey Soil Health Awards.
Working with soils allows Dr Knox to see the damage being done to this fundamental resource, “but I can also see the opportunities we have to address it.”
“Certainly here in Australia, most agricultural industries have taken up this challenge and are doing all they can to produce more with less. I don’t think the public necessarily believes or actually knows about these stories, maybe as much as they should. But we can still do more. »
He is encouraged by the innovative work being done by individual farmers, some of whom have been encouraged to discuss their work after being prompted by a Soil Your Undies exercise.
“They understood the problem and adapted their systems to meet a niche challenge in their valleys. Other farmers can then see that it’s not something forced on them from a research station miles away – it’s actually a local success story. I think there’s tremendous power in that.
Dr. Knox never sees the end of the need for continuous innovation by farmers and soil science to continually discover how soils work. But he thinks the biggest need right now is commitment, to take the work of innovators and scientists further into the paddock.
“It’s about taking those ideas that we think will work and being there to support farmers who want to make those changes in practice but are unsure of their ability to do so. I know that most farmers recognize the importance of their soils and want to protect them. They just need encouragement.
Ultimately, Dr. Knox observes, there are few higher priorities than protecting the soils we have left.
“Let’s not send people into space,” he said. “Let’s invest in the protection of our soils. Therein lies the future of humanity.