Save our soils


Former Governor-General Michael Jeffery on how a vegetable patch can help the planet… and bring communities together

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils. Great news as far as former Governor-General Michael Jeffery is concerned because he believes there is a soil crisis. “We all need to make this a priority. If we don’t do something now, not only will it affect you and I today, it will have a massive affect on your children, and their children.”

You may be asking why a former Governor-General is so passionate about soil? Well, on 23 October 2012, General Jeffery was appointed Australia’s first ever Advocate for Soil Health. The appointment is to raise awareness of the importance of having healthy soils, and that this must become a national priority.

Save the soil, save the planet

General Jeffery says, “Soils are critically important to our survival and the quality of life for our children and grandchildren. At the G20 meeting in Brisbane US President Obama said ‘We all have a role to play – it is not something we can leave solely to governments to sort out’.”

I met with General Jeffery, and he is an encyclopedia for facts and figures regarding the soil degradation of this country, and in fact the world. He quotes former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.

To put this into perspective, General Jeffery shared this sobering thought. “Did you know that two-thirds of the Australian farming soils are classed as severely degraded through soil erosion, salinity, contamination, and loss of native vegetation and water damage? This, in time will have a grassroots practical impact as well as globally affect every one of us.”

His view of this predicament is this, “We all live in a global village; if there are millions of people crossing borders because of hunger and thirst, it will affect Australia. It could make the current boatpeople issue pale in comparison.”

However, he believes the bigger question is how we are going to meet the food needs of a global population of nine to ten billion by 2050. He says that all research points to the fact that we will have real trouble doing that. If hundreds of millions of people are going to be short of food, and we have rising food prices because of shortages of land and crops, that is going to lead to social unrest and the possibility of conflict.

“It will become a huge social and security issue that will affect everyone, wherever they live, including in Australia, unless we do something about it now. And the only way we, as Australians, can have an impact on that is by working out what we are doing well in a food security sense and exporting that knowledge to countries that also want to help get our planet back into shape, while also producing more food,” he says.

General Jeffery makes the point that his passion about the need to tackle this future problem does not arise from a fear that Australia will be unable to feed its own population. With more than 70 per cent of our agricultural produce being exported, which helps to feed another 60 million people offshore, there is little danger of Australia starving.

However, he acknowledges that regrettably this problem was created particularly during the past 100 years. “We have drastically compromised soil health, and have mined and degraded soils and natural resources from our land and ocean. Then cleared 75 per cent of the earth’s primary forests and their carbon draw down,” he says.

It’s easy to think that governments or larger organisations will be the ones who can solve this problem. However, General Jeffery says, “Everyone can play a part in helping to solve this problem. Especially the New Australians,” he says.

Does your school have a veggie patch?

So, General Jeffery is seeking your support. “Our children are our future and an effective way of fostering change is to get kids interested in how our food is produced and the fascinating process of how plants grow,” he says.


“A simple act of getting a veggie patch at each school can make a huge difference. Not only will it have a positive impact on your environment, it will help your kids, and the planet,” he adds.

“Saving the soil is an education process. With knowledge you have an opportunity to bring a lasting change,” he says. “Look at the difference ‘Clean Up Australia’ has made.”

General Jeffery is making a very valid point. The founder of Clean Up Australia, Ian Kiernan was just one person. All it takes is for one mother or father to instigate one action, and it could be the difference required. Just like the ripple effect that Clean Up Australia has made on a global stage.

“The more kids learn and understand what it takes to grow healthy plants can lead to better informed future citizens.” In a world driven by technology we all know that kids gravitate towards computers and less and less of the basic community activities like digging up soil to grow a plant,” he says.

He believes it will help them learn about the importance of fresh, clean air and healthy soil. “They want to know what happens when dirty air caused by smoke, gases, and other pollutants can be harmful to plants, limiting their ability to take in carbon dioxide from the air for making food (photosynthesis). It can also block out sunlight, which is also necessary for healthy plant growth,” he says.

“You can teach all this and more with a simple veggie patch. With hands on experience, we can teach kids what would happen if we don’t fix the problem of severely degraded through soil erosion, salinity, contamination, and loss of native vegetation and water damage,” he adds.

Multicultural plants in your backyard

“Ignorance is the cause of conflicts.” General Jeffery is asking us to take on this simple challenge. “What if you get all the kids of different nationalities to grow plants from their own mother land. A veggie patch is not just teaching about growing plants. It can teach about different cultures and bring about racial harmony,” he says.

“What if the kids can grow fennel, sweet bay, or coriander? Then tell stories or even how they are used in cooking. This is also about using plants to bring the different nationalities together, and to appreciate each other’s cultures,” he adds.

Research tells us that many new Australians often feel displaced and disconnected when arriving in a new country. Working with soil could bring about sense of belonging and connection to their chosen country. For some people it can even foster inner peace and mental well being.

General Jeffery believes that working with Australian soil can help anchor new Australians to their new country at deep level.

“If you have a child, or know someone who has children at a school, my invitation to you is that you ask the Principal of that school how they can create a multicultural veggie patch. Just imagine what could be possible if we educate children, and begin to address the crisis of our soil degradation,” he says.


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