A lack of career pathways and long-term contracts are driving a shortage of soil specialists in Australia, say industry experts.
Dr Jason Condon is an associate professor of soil science at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, with almost 30 years of industry experience, including more than 15 years spent researching soil and farming systems issues in the Mekong River Delta, Vietnam.
According to Dr Condon, interest in the field is high among students. However, few pursued the required extended study.
"Local graduates in the agricultural sector are in high demand, with many taking agronomy roles that need a good foundation of soils knowledge," he said.
"Due to this demand and the salaries that go with it, fewer people are going further with their studies and becoming skilled and qualified for soils research."
Dr Condon said an experienced and connected research workforce was essential to meet future challenges.
"As a sector, we need to create career pathways for soil specialists," he said.
"There has been a tendency for soil research careers to exist on short-term contracts and sporadic opportunities.
"Government agencies and universities need to create programs that provide longer-term stability and 10-year contracts that scaffold and link short-term funded projects into significant portfolios.
"These will build support structures that allow emerging soil experts to develop valued experience and linkages within their industry so we have the best people working to solve the problems we face.
"We had that kind of system 30 years ago, but it has been lost amid 'economic efficiencies' and the 'three-year project' model."
Dr Condon said soil was the foundation of our existence.
"We live on it, eat food from it, clothe ourselves in fibres created by it, it filters our water, we look to it to sequester the carbon emitted into the atmosphere by our presence," he said.
"If we understand, respect and care for our soils, we go a long way to looking after our future."
Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) CEO Professor Wendy Umberger also highlighted the importance of soil research at the Crawford Fund Forum, explaining 40 per cent of the globe's land was used for agriculture and that 52pc of that land was degraded.
"One of our growing areas of demand at ACIAR is work on soils," Prof Umberger said.
"Some countries don't know how to discuss climate, but they know soils are an issue, and we cannot get enough soil scientists to help carry out projects."