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Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry
Agricultural innovation

WONG, Dr Vanessa, President, Victorian Branch, Soil Science Australia

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the House. I invite you to make a short opening statement, which we will follow up with some questions.

Dr Wong : Soil Science Australia has an interest in soils and the management of Australian soils. Briefly, Australian soils are obviously critical for agricultural productivity and are a key asset in terms of improving agricultural production. Australian soils are quite different from those in the Northern Hemisphere. A lot of the techniques and methods that have been in developed in Europe and in North America do not necessarily apply directly to Australian soils. What we need to do in terms of improving or applying those techniques is to calibrate or optimise them in Australia.

Our submission is focused on two aspects: using some of the existing technologies and improving those but also improving the uptake of proven technologies that are already out there. So the first aspect is the emerging technologies, which is tied quite tightly to the uptake of new expanding technologies, like the use of drones, a lot of decision support systems, integration of data. A lot of the data is already there but it is in quite a piecemeal fashion. We need to integrate that and allow ends users to access it. The other aspect is getting our data that is already there and improving the uptake by end users, whether it is a landholder or other land managers—and there is a real gap there. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that people are being given incorrect advice or using techniques that are not necessarily proven. This is where our accreditation system in terms of using a certified practising soil scientist is also really important in providing advice to those end users. I might just leave it there for the time being.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Just to set the ball rolling and lock in on some of your last comments, I have done a lot of soil samples in my time and they are very time consuming.

Dr Wong : They are.

CHAIR: They are not really cheap and not overly quick, I guess, by the time you send them away—and you mention that. Is there anything on the horizon that is going to make a quantum difference to the way that we analyse these soils? I understand you have got this project up with CSIRO trying to get real-time monitoring. How close is that? What is it likely to do? What is the cost curve going to be like?

Dr Wong : That is a very good point. At the moment in terms of getting a good understanding of your soils—a good soil fertility test—it costs in the order of $100 to $200 per sample. If you have a large property, obviously the costs can be quite a big barrier to the landholder. What we are working on at the moment is a series of rapid soil testing techniques—and, again, these have been developed in Europe and in North America. They appear to work quite well—things like looking at understanding or determining soil organic carbon in a rather rapid and cost-effective way. We have techniques like the mid infra-red technique where you can receive data quite quickly. Effectively, it is just a scan of your soil core, which obviously decreases the time between your sample and the time you get your data.

CHAIR: It is still an in-laboratory test?

Dr Wong : At the moment it is still an in-laboratory test, but there is potential scope to definitely expand that. This is in the early stages of development as well. Some new papers have come out, particularly from the University of Sydney. They are working—

CHAIR: What about things like P, K, copper and sulfur?

Dr Wong : Yes. There are some tests on the way. The Mehlich 3 is a rapid test which has been developed in North America. We really do need to take what has been developed and apply them in Australia through testing in pot trials—

CHAIR: So basically you are in a calibration phase.

Dr Wong : Yes, that is right.

CHAIR: And that is likely to cut the costs as well?

Dr Wong : Yes, definitely. It will cut the cost and it will cut the time in terms of—

CHAIR: At the time of return but maybe not at the time of collection of samples, which is quite time consuming.

Dr Wong : Yes, that is right. There are other ways in terms of collecting other data at a paddock level which could be quite quick, and those have been discussed briefly in our submission, using a lot of what we call ground-based geophysical techniques, like running an instrument across the paddock, whether it is on ground—so, towed behind a quad bike—or whether it is in the air, using airborne geophysics. You can collect quite a lot of data that way. A lot of this has been done in the Murray-Darling Basin. The mapping of salinity has been done on a range of different scales, and you can collect a lot of data quite quickly in that way.

CHAIR: Just to finish up, is it all going smoothly? Are you getting what you need to make this happen? One of the purposes of this inquiry is trying to locate the bottlenecks, if you like, in the system at the moment and whether we can recommend things that governments can do to make your life easier and bring these advances on more quickly.

Dr Wong : Sure. A number of the barriers have been identified in the Soil Research, Development and Extension Strategy, which was released a couple of years ago. It ties in with looking at a number of different aspects, such as the education of young soil scientists and whether we are actually providing enough information to disseminate as well, not just through the university system but also, again, through other means. Getting that information out to the end user and also educating people like extension officers, which we have fewer and fewer of now. I think that is a real barrier at the moment: there is a gap in the change. We have the information but we cannot get it out to the end users, so there is that missing link in the middle.

CHAIR: Do you use the GRDC farming systems groups?

Dr Wong : Yes. Again, it is all piecemeal at the moment. So, in terms of getting information out in a consistent fashion, it depends on which group is working with different organisations.

CHAIR: Sure.

Dr Wong : Also, collaborative work was again identified in that RD&E strategy.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Ms O'NEIL: I think one really interesting idea in your submission was having a large-scale soil data platform. Can you tell us a bit more about what that would look like and what kinds of problems that would solve, and then perhaps what the role of government is in these sorts of platforms?

Dr Wong : Yes. The idea behind a large-scale soil data platform is to integrate all of the soil information into one repository. Again, at the moment we have a lot of data out there on soil. It is piecemeal. Some of it has not been digitised, as well. A lot of soil work was done back in the sixties, which is very important, and we can definitely build on it, but it is hidden in various technical reports which are not in digital format. So getting all of this data into one repository which is seamless and which everybody can access would be quite a large leap forward, largely because then you have information on a range of different scales—and soils are quite variable across a paddock, let alone across a catchment. So having that would greatly improve our potential to use that data to improve agricultural production.

Ms McGOWAN: Sorry to interrupt, because I am really interested in Claire's question about big data. But what data do you mean? Because I cannot imagine what you are talking about. When we think 'big data', what are the components of it that we could actually pull together?

Dr Wong : It is a range of different information, like the mapping of—

Ms McGOWAN: Like soil types?

Dr Wong : different soil types and mapping of soil characteristics.

Ms O'NEIL: Like salinity or something?

Dr Wong : Yes, like salinity, carbon, organic carbon, pH—different soil characteristics within these—

Ms McGOWAN: Are you saying you already have that content for Australia?

Dr Wong : In some parts of Australia. Again, it is not consistent across Australia, and the quality is not consistent either.

Ms McGOWAN: So, if the quality is not consistent and it is all piecemeal, you would really need to go back to taws to start again, or are you confident that you have enough baseline?

Dr Wong : There is enough baseline there. It is a matter of basically getting it into a consistent format and filling in the gaps.

Ms PRICE: Who are you suggesting would be the compiler and the disseminator of that information?

Dr Wong : In terms of compilation, CSIRO have already started putting together a lot of this data. In terms of dissemination of the data, I guess it could be a range of different organisations who work in land management.

Ms O'NEIL: Just so we have a really tangible understanding of where this would lead, is it something like being able to answer the question of how changing flows in the Murray-Darling affected salinity over time, going right out across all of the catchment area? Is that the sort of question you would be able to answer if you had this data platform?

Dr Wong : The first stage would be to establish baseline data—what we already have and what is there. Then, in order to monitor change, you need to go back and make those measurements. That is where a lot of the rapid soil assessment techniques come into play. So you can start to look at things like: how does organic carbon change over time? If you plant a forest here, how much does carbon go up? Does carbon go down? Does the pH go up? Does it go down over a period of 10 years? At the moment we do not have that baseline data across Australia.

Ms O'NEIL: So a sort of evidentiary dataset that can tell you what the impact of doing A on B is, basically?

Dr Wong : That is right.

Ms O'NEIL: What about the role of government here? Is this something that the private sector will fund on their own if it has such benefits?

Dr Wong : So far it has been unlikely. The private sector has not really funded this sort of data collection. It has primarily been by government at different levels, whether it is on a regional scale in terms of the catchment management authorities or state governments or federal governments. There has been very little investment from the private sector in that regard.

Mr ZAPPIA: I have a couple of questions in respect to some of your work. Firstly, I assume that certain plants grow better in certain types of soils.

Dr Wong : Yes.

Mr ZAPPIA: Do you provide advice to communities in regional towns on what kinds of crops they should be planting as opposed to perhaps what they are planting?

Dr Wong : As an organisation or as the members within the organisation?

Mr ZAPPIA: As an organisation. Do you put out any information or literature or do you get requests from major landholders saying: 'I've got property in this location. What crops would grow best here?'

Dr Wong : That is probably more the case. We do get requests for information and then, once we have received a request, it goes out to our members. Within our members we have people like extension officers, other soil scientists, some agronomists, and they are probably best placed to answer what crop to grow in a particular area. Generally we do not put out fact sheets or anything like that. We are just an umbrella organisation. We pull together soil scientists in Australia.

Mr ZAPPIA: Is there any way of farmers buying product or equipment on the market that allows them to do some basic testing themselves?

Dr Wong : Yes. It depends on—

Mr ZAPPIA: What you are testing for.

Dr Wong : What you are testing for and how much money they have or how much they are willing to spend.

Ms McGOWAN: In the cropping areas and the dairy industry, which we are going to hear from, they have fantastic knowledge of their soils and all the different components. Thank you for what you are doing and thank you very much for your presentation. I wish you well in your endeavour to get all that data together. I can see enormous implications for us if we can get it to happen.

CHAIR: In your submission you mention there is a lot of gain to be had from getting to the trailers of innovation, if you like. The top 15 or 20 per cent are really kicking goals and understanding their soils. I think you can take that through—they are the early adopters of most things. Some things fail. We have uncovered a few things that did not go all that well in the past. But how are we going to do this? The general thought is—and, of course, I keep quoting the no-till revolution—it did take some time, but then all of a sudden the penny dropped and we went from 20 per cent to 80 per cent very quickly. Then you are dealing with quite a small tail at the end of it. Where are we on the spectrum of people understanding their soils? I suspect a lot of people, like me, took a lot of soil samples early, probably did not change their management practices a lot, saw it as a fairly time-consuming and expensive operation and have dropped off. If you think this is the easy meat, how do we get them on board?

Dr Wong : That is a really difficult question. What we have done so far is to try to get people together through events such as field days, and we are really relying on extension officers to get that sort of information out there. In terms of the uptake of the latest or the current best practice, that is really where we are sitting at the moment. In terms of trying to get more people to take it up, I am not really sure.

CHAIR: Certainly the agricultural advisors—

Dr Wong : Yes, definitely.

CHAIR: that many farms have now are very influential. I suspect they might be a better target audience in a way than the farmers themselves.

Dr Wong : Yes, definitely.

CHAIR: Are there any other questions? Thank you very much for your attendance here today. I do not think you have been asked to supply anything else but if you have later thoughts that you would like the committee to have, please contact us.

Dr Wong : Yes.

CHAIR: You will be sent a copy of the transcript of the evidence and you will have the opportunity to request corrections to any errors.

Dr Wong : Fantastic; thank you.