Interview with Soil Scientist Johan Bouma

Professor Johan Bouma, a renowned soil scientist, explains the importance of soil in creating a sustainable world and how SoilCares (now part of AgroCares) can contribute to it.

SoilCares talks about the importance of soil in creating a sustainable world with retired Professor Johan Bouma, a Dutch soil scientists with vast experience working for Wageningen University and Research Centre. He shares his views on soil’s role in attaining the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and how SoilCares can relate to this and contribute to making the world more sustainable.

Professor Bouma, can you elaborate on the importance of soil in creating a more sustainable world?

Johan Bouma: “The concept of a sustainable world was first articulated in 1987 in the Brundtland Report. Nobody is against a sustainable world, of course, but in the past it was difficult to make it clear what a sustainable world really would entail and how to make it operational. I think the acceptance of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the General Assembly of the UN in September 2015 was a very important moment because then sustainability was translated into 17 concrete goals that cover every aspect of life. Soil plays an important role in several of these goals. For instance, in food production, water quality, and climate mitigation soils play a very direct, key role!”

Which role do you believe precision agriculture can play here?

“We know nutrients are extremely important for crops. Fertilisation recommendations are now available for farmers advising them which nutrients to apply to the soil. This is done by linking results of fertility samples with yield data obtained elsewhere in similar soils. But these recommendations are often determined from mixed soil samples that give average values for the whole field. This means they do not reflect soil variation within the field. With precision agriculture we can monitor the soil more precisely allowing, in principle, application of the right amount of nutrients at the right time and at the right location. Thus fertilisers can be used more efficiently, rather than applying all of it at the beginning of the season. Another important aspect is that, if you give the plant only what it needs, there is nothing left to be leached, thereby polluting the ground or the surface water. So you hit two birds with one stone! Also, money is saved as you use only the fertiliser needed avoiding excess fertilisation and environmental contamination. In that sense, precision agriculture is the next step in terms of managing agricultural systems as the principle also applies to irrigation, tillage and crop management”.

How do you think SoilCares technology can add value? And why?

“In the standard case, the fertility level of soil is determined with a mixed sample. As I already said, this gives average values for the whole field. If we follow the precision principle, we want to see the variations within the field and also keep track of the values during the season.

The great thing about SoilCares technology is that it makes it possible to take a lot of measurements because it is rapid and affordable.

It enables farmers to monitor the soil during the season and find trends, linking values obtained with crop reactions that are always quite site specific. Some spots may have earlier lack of nutrition than others.

SoilCares technology makes the concept of precision agriculture feasible. I dare to say that without this type of technology, the idea of precision fertilization would be prohibitively expensive. It would not be operational if you have to take samples from all over the field and send them to a laboratory. Moreover, you would not be able to react to the soil condition immediately because you have to wait for two weeks for the results.”

What should the main message be about the importance of soil in your opinion in various disciplines?

“Soil scientists mainly focus on their own discipline. However, if we want to achieve the sustainable development goals, we have to work with scientists in other disciplines and various stakeholders. Nobody is against working together, just as with creating a sustainable world, but how do you do it? You are only a member of the team when you have something to offer. In that sense, I think we have to be much more effective in presenting what we have to offer and show what it means in terms of the sustainable development goals. We, soil scientists, talk amongst ourselves about the importance of soil but we need to show it and tell it better to others.”

How can we improve the transfer of knowledge about soil in various disciplines?

“In order to facilitate the transfer of knowledge we need to be more open in sharing information. But we also need to be involved! I would strongly advise other scientists to get soil scientists involved and not just use the data from our databases. By doing that they will also get an idea of the background of these data and their limitations so that they can interpret them in the right way. Again, in order to promote soil science the right way, we need to engage ourselves much more with others.”

How can companies like SoilCares contribute to creating more awareness about the importance of soil?

“Participating in events is one of the ways. For examples, last month I was at the Pedometrics conference in Wageningen and I saw the excellent presentation by SoilCares. But most importantly, SoilCares should have well documented case studies, showing what the input of soil means in the production process. The best way to raise awareness about the importance of soil is not by saying that soil is important but by showing it with real-life stories. Tell the story of people you helped with soil testing and how this improved their yield while contributing to achieving some of the SDGs.”

With its reach of over three million farming families, Myanma Awba Group is seen to be the ideal partner for SoilCares in the country.

The Myanmar government also gave a strong endorsement for the scanner technology, with Dr Tin Htut, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, opening the workshop at the Department of Agricultural research facilities near Naypyitaw.

SoilCares and Myanma Awba Group will spend the next three months developing the calibration database by collecting soil samples from over 600 locations throughout the country. Roll-out to Myanmar farmers is scheduled for mid-2017.d