Q&A: ISRIC, soils and ACP farmers

Sjef Kauffman

Sjef Kauffman explains how ISRIC – World Soil Information, is improving access to the world’s soil maps for everyone.

What are the key problems relating to soils for farmers in ACP countries?
For the majority of small farmers in ACP countries the three major factors limiting production are low soil fertility, shortages of water in the root zone soil, and soil degradation. Soil fertility is often low because many soils are strongly weathered or sandy. Moreover, many farmers do not add adequate fertilizer to compensate for the nutrients that their crops take from the soil. Agriculture in ACP countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, is predominantly rainfed. In semi-arid and sub-humid areas, shortages of water in the rootable soil may limit crop growth during the rainy season. Over-cultivation may lead to enhanced wind and chemical degradation, which will reduce the production potential of the soil, unless appropriate soil and water conservation approaches have been adopted.

How do these problems relate to agricultural and rural development?
These three factors often lead to low production levels, making it difficult for many small farmers to escape a life of subsistence. They are willing to make investments in the soil to overcome these constraints, but they require incentives to do so. Governments therefore need to create better production conditions by: (i) making fertilizers more affordable for all farmers (e.g. fertilizer prices inland can be four to five times those at the port); (ii) providing financial support for farmers to invest in soil and water conservation; and (iii) promoting the development of agricultural training and information facilities for farmers.

Most uses of ICTs in relation to soils seem to be confined to surveys of land cover, soil moisture, etc. Do you feel that GIS and GPS technologies could take over the role of the surveyor?
GIS and GPS are tools for the surveyor that make it possible to offer fast, location-specific, and tailor-made information on soils and other natural resources to support land owners and policy makers in making decisions about, for example, necessary investments. As such, GIS and GPS are not taking over, but rather are enhancing the role of the surveyor. Moreover, GIS applications are always dependent on the quality of the available data, and new field surveys are needed in many ACP countries to expand and improve current datasets.

What activities is ISRIC involved in that you are excited about?
ISRIC, in collaboration with the FAO and various national partner institutions, is currently involved in the global and local monitoring of land degradation based on semi-automatic interpretation of satellite images. This will be the first objective quantitative assessment of land degradation worldwide that can be used to underpin policy decisions, and will supersede existing qualitative assessments.

ISRIC is a leading partner in the development of the European Digital Archive on Soil Maps of the World (EuDASM), which allows anyone with an internet connection to access soil maps. What is the next step in accessibility?
Many of the maps that are now accessible through EuDASM were deteriorating in archives of Northern institutes, and were physically inaccessible to individuals in the developing world. Now, no one has to trek all the way to a library in the UK, say, in order to access a soil map. Every user of soil information can access ISRIC’s soil collections online or on CD-ROM. This is a great leap forward, but we have taken only the first step in releasing this information. The challenge now is to convince other national and international soil map holders to join this innovative venture. The first responses from them have been very encouraging.

ISRIC is making soil maps available online and on CD-ROM, but is this sufficient? How can you promote the wider use of soil maps in agricultural planning projects?
It is a first step, but in practice users ask various questions that require an interpretation of soil information combined with other biophysical and socio-economic information. ISRIC and its partners are therefore exploring a number of ICT tools that will allow us to do this. For example, we have recently formulated a proposal for a Green Water Information and Learning Network, which would include an easy-to-use question-and-answer facility for users in the field and at government level. The proposed network would include national partners in ACP countries and leading international institutions concerned with the development of sustainable agro-ecosystems. We are now looking for donors to support it.
We have also collaborated in developing modelling tools to quantify soil organic carbon stocks and changes at national scales in the context of the GEF-supported Soil Organic Carbon (GEFSOC) project.

What sort of applications could follow from the creation of this comprehensive soil map archive?
Linking the global EuDASM collection with the digital Soil and Terrain Database (SOTER) will open up an array of applications in the fields of climate change, food production, biodiversity, water, and other environmental assessments at global, regional and national levels. ISRIC looks forward to contributing to all of these ventures in the coming years.

Sjef Kauffman is Deputy Director of ISRIC – World Soil Information, Wageningen, the Netherlands. For furtherinformation, visit this site .

11 March 2006

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