Sustainable agriculture is fundamental to the future prosperity of the Pacific Island Countries and Territories. Commercial farming is an important source of employment and export revenue, and subsistence farming underpins food security for most rural areas.
Soils are the key foundation of land based agricultural production. However, they are often poorly understood and managed. Traditional agricultural systems in the Pacific Island Countries and Territories have recently become intensified and resulted in the depletion of the soil nutrient capital.
While there are a lot of relevant soil data from soil survey and research work in the Pacific that was carried out prior to the 1990s, they are not easily accessible or understandable without expert interpretation and advice. To provide access this data, a feasibility study for a web-based Pacific Soils Portal was undertaken in 2006 and subsequently endorsed by 19 Pacific Island Countries and Territories. It was recommended that the Pacific Community Land Resources Division collaborate with Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research to establish the portal. Political instability in Fiji and the global financial crisis stalled the initiative until the emergence of the Pacific Soil Partnership in 2014.
In 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organisation Pacific Soil Partnership meeting reviewed the status and management of soils and the key required research areas in each member country. The group identified how comprehensive nutrient budgeting and benchmarking soil biological function are essential for improving farm productivity and agricultural resilience. They identified that extension officers are unable to reliably ascertain which nutrients (or other factors such as pests, diseases, and other soil constraints) are limiting production or recommend optimal nutrient inputs. The lack of access to information on soil types and their distribution further limits the ability to extend the results from research studies or well-understood farming systems to other locations across the Pacific. The meeting concluded that to overcome soil challenges in the Pacific Island Countries and Territories, three main activities need to be undertaken:
- Improve nutrient and water management in both high volcanic islands and low lying atolls.
- Promote innovation in capacity building and training with a particular focus on extension services for smallholder farmers.
- Proceed with the development of the Pacific Soil Portal originally proposed and incorporate recent developments in information and computing technology. The principle behind the portal is to make soils data more accessible, discoverable and easily understood to a range of stakeholders and end-users. The Pacific Soils Portal would also leverage work carried out by Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research on its Soils Portals.
The Pacific Regional Soil Partnership Meeting in 2015 and the Volcanic and Atoll Soil Workshop in 2016 identified many interacting barriers as shown in Figure 1. Furthermore, they found that lack of soil knowledge contributes directly to inefficiencies and prevents effective management to improve yields and sustain the soils base of the Pacific Island Countries and Territories.
The Soil management in Pacific Islands project was developed to address these challenges. The project was led by CSIRO, the Pacific Community, and Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research New Zealand and partnered with relevant research groups from the respective case study countries.
The key objectives of the project were to:
- Identify the barriers that are preventing sustainable soil management.
- Quantify nutrient cycling in island agricultural and taro production systems and undertake field trials to highlight the importance of budgeting for soil fertility management and increasing yield.
- Identify problems with and subsequently improve current soil sampling, testing and interpretation protocols and develop soil type specific protocols.
- Develop an online Pacific Soil Portal to enable sustainable soil management in the farming systems of the region.
The long-term outcome of this research, as shown in Figure 2, is to develop sustainable intensification of agricultural systems based on sound soil knowledge and farming system management.
At the mid-term review as part of the monitoring and evaluation process the project team with ACIAR decided to shift focus in Objective 1 from identifying barriers to adopting improved nutrient management systems to implementing an extension strategy that overcomes the barriers. This change was made to ensure greater project impact.