Global Soil Map could transform agriculture

20 August, 2009 by (comments)

An ambitious new project to digitally map soils all over the world could transform agriculture. An article in the journal Science, describes how the (GSM) initiative could help tackle pressing problems such as food insecurity, climate change and environmental degradation worldwide.

The initiative follows the launch of African Soil Information Service (AfSIS) earlier this year, which will use the latest satellite technology to produce high quality maps of Africa’s soils in order to fine-tune farming practices. GSM will use the AfSIS methodology to produce similar maps for the whole world.

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According to GSM, the project should produce “fine-resolution, three-dimensional grid of the functional properties of soils.” It aims to provide highly accurate soil information in real-time, as well as state-of-the-art analysis of soil properties. This can include factors such as soil water storage and carbon density, which can be crucial for farmers, scientists and policy-makers taking decisions about land-use. The project also calls for the information to be made available free, online.

“Improved soil management for better crop productivity is crucial for providing food security – an intensifying challenge in the context of population growth, increasing numbers of hungry people, and the impacts of climate change on agriculture,” said Pedro Sanchez, director of AfSIS and the Tropical Agriculture and Rural Development Program of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. Sanchez is one of team of authors writing in Science (7th August 2009), outlining their vision of a global soil map.

The article explains how the map-making technology will be deployed, as well as some of the problems with existing soil maps, which are often paper-based, compiled using outdated or imprecise methodologies, and of visual quality too poor to be of practical use in land management. Finally, the article explains that scientists will be able to use the new information to develop evidence-based soil management recommendations to help agricultural extension workers, farmers, land-use planners, wildlife managers and more.

“A few years ago the very idea of a global digital soil map was little more than a dream – now it’s fast becoming a reality,” said Dr Nteranya Sanginga, of the Topical Soil and Biological Fertility (TSBF) institute at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the main implementer of AfSIS. “The Digital Soil Map for Africa will transform agriculture in Africa; a global map could transform agriculture globally.”

Work is already underway in sub-Saharan Africa, following an US$18m grant awarded to CIAT from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which established AfSIS. The initiative will produce the first-ever detailed digital soil map of 42 countries in the region.

CIAT’s TSBF institute, based in Nairobi, Kenya, is leading the effort, with the support of The Earth Institute of Columbia University in New York, the World Soil Information Centre (ISRIC) and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) also based in Nairobi. The project has been widely endorsed by national governments and the training of national research scientists to work with the new tools will start in September 2009.

See the following blogs for news of interest:
The Earth Institute at Columbia University
CGIAR Rural Climate Exchange

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Filed Under: Africa @en, Agro-ecology and Economics @en, Regions
  • Luigi

    Aren't similar projects already taking place? At ISRIC, for example? Not clear to me what th enovelty of this is.

  • Neil

    Hi Luigi – many thanks for your comment; this is important. Over to CIAT's Peter Okoth:

    The difference between this project and what ISRIC is doing is that this project is not mapping soil polygon maps. The project is using raster geographic grids initially to allocate random sampling points and out which prediction models will be used to predict soil properties using statistical models without the traditional enormous field checks. Samples will also be scanned using near infrared and mid infrared to increase time-delivery efficiency and that is why the project will cover the sub-Saharan Africa continent in 4 years instead of twenty-or-more years that such a task would normally take using the traditional soil survey methods. Remote Sensing and a reasonable amount of field check is included. By the way, ISRIC is part of the project and agrees that the method is new and has novelty that they are also promoting to be used by the rest the global nodes (Asia, North America, South America and Europe).