Soil and our future – health, climate change and feeding the world

The impact of soil on children’s blood lead levels to how farmers can respond to climate change are among the hot button issues under discussion at the 2015 Agriculture and Environment Research Symposium.
The University of Sydney’s Faculty of Agriculture and Environment brings together leading experts from Australia, New Zealand and the United States for the symposium ‘Soil to Save our Planet’ on 14 July, commemorating the International Year of Soils.

Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment, Professor Alexander McBratney said. “Our research symposium focuses on soil providing sustainable solutions around food, water, energy, climate change, biodiversity protection and human health.”

Highlights of the symposium include:

Impact of soil lead exposure on children’s blood lead levels

Dangerous levels of lead in blood are a major concern for residents in the Broken Hill area. The ingestion of lead from topsoil is a key source of exposure, especially for children.

Results from previous blood lead screening programs reveal a 47 percent decrease, from 1994 to 2012, in the number of children with blood lead levels above the acceptable range set by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

PhD student Kai Yang’s research showed the success partially comes down to the use of ‘cracker dust’, a lead-free mixture used to effectively cover topsoil and reduce exposure to its lead content.

This year however the NHMRC revised the level at which it suggests children’s blood lead levels should be investigated, from 10 micrograms per decilitre to five.

Kai’s supervisor, Associate Professor Stephen Cattle, said, “Under the new recommendations half of one-to-four year old children in Broken Hill would exceed the newly revised five micrograms per declitre, indicating a risk of chronic low level exposure. Kai’s research should be useful in guiding lead abatement strategies for reducing this risk.”

Online tools determine best spots for growing crops

Farmers, consultants and investors in Tasmania have been given access to an online tool identifying the most suitable areas for planting different crops. The digital soil map has been developed by the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) in consultation with the University’s Faculty of Agriculture and Environment.

Climate grids are also being developed, using 270 temperature sensors located around Tasmania, to cover all types of terrain. Darren Kidd from the Faculty and DPIPWE will detail how the soil and climate grids produce maps showing the ideal locations for 20 different crops including opium poppies, potatoes, hazelnuts and raspberries.

“In consideration of future climate outlooks, projections are also being applied to new maps for 2030 and 2050 to inform longer-term agricultural investment and planning,” said Mr Kidd.

National observation system for soil moisture

The University’s Associate Professor Tom Bishop will outline some of the latest advances in the measurement of soil moisture.

He will discuss challenges such as predicting subsoil moisture and a case study from the Murrumbidgee showing how remote sensing and a network of moisture probes provide farmers with soil moisture data for individual paddocks to help them decide which crops to grow and how much to sow and fertilise.

“Until recently it has been very hard to measure soil moisture over large areas at anything but the coarsest spatial resolution,” said Associate Professor Bishop.

“In the age of big data, our capacity to measure soil moisture is growing. A mixture of new remote sensing platforms, cheaper and different soil sensors and advances in spatial statistics has created the possibility of a national observation system for soil moisture that can predict for the whole soil profile at fine resolutions in space and time.”

Event details:
What: 2015 Research Symposium: Soil to Save our Planet
Where: New Law School (F10), Eastern Avenue, Camperdown, The University of Sydney
When: 08:30am to 5pm, Tuesday 14 July 2015
Cost: Free

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