A distinguished Australian scientist has been chosen to lead a global effort to end pollution of the world’s food-growing soils.

Ravi Naidu, a Laureate Professor at the University of Newcastle and Managing Director and CEO of Australia’s leading contaminants research centre, CRC CARE, will chair the International Network on Soil Pollution (INSOP).

INSOP was set up by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as an urgent response to scale-up global efforts to prevent contamination of arable soils by chemicals, fertilisers and plastics and other toxins, with the goal of zero pollution.

It brings together experts in soils and contamination science from around the world to understand the full cycle of soil pollution, from assessment to remediation to the food chain, and find ways to prevent and clean it up, to protect both human health and the environment.

It also helps countries to strengthen their laws, codes of practice and technical skills to avoid pollution of food-growing soils and human food.

“Soil pollution is a large and growing dimension of our increasingly contaminated world,” Prof. Naidu said. “It has a multitude of causes, including overuse of farm chemicals and fertilisers, industrial fallout from big cities and the transport sector, the widespread distribution of tiny plastic fragments, acid rain, and other forms of toxic and hazardous waste.

According to Prof. Naidu, farmers worldwide are already making significant progress implementing sustainable low- and no-till cropping regimes to preserve moisture.

“Nevertheless,” he said, “given recent advances in farm management, including precision agriculture, there are excellent opportunities to reduce the 200 million tonnes of fertilisers and 5 million tonnes of pesticides added to farmed soils globally each year. INSOP will support farmers in best practice to build long-term soil heath and minimise the environmental impacts of agriculture, such as nitrogen pollution from fertilisers.

Prof. Naidu emphasised that there is mounting evidence that soil pollution directly affects the quality and safety of the world food supply and may be a growing factor in human disease and premature death.

“Furthermore,” he said, “if you contaminate the soil, the pollution can spread to groundwater and surface water, affecting the safety of drinking water. We have known for generations about the dire effects of air and water pollution in big cities – but the contamination of soils, and the food they produce, has been a sleeping giant. Food is one of the four main pathways by which toxins enter humanity.”

Among its many tasks, the new network will:

  • Develop tools and guidelines to prevent soil pollution
  • Develop a universal code of practice for fertiliser use
  • Establish regional guidelines for controlling soil pollution and best practice
  • Develop guidelines for cleaning up heavily polluted soils
  • Assess the global state of soil pollution and its effects on human health and the agricultural environment.

Prof. Naidu has been a leader in Australian contamination and clean-up science for over 30 years. He has authored over 1000 scientific papers, books and book chapters, and holds 13 patents. He has worked at CSIRO as a Chief Research Scientist, and at the University of South Australia and the University of Newcastle to establish and lead globally recognised contaminants research centres. In 2005 he founded CRC CARE to help industry in Australia understand and overcome its contamination issues.

He is a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts and a Fellow of the Soil Science Societies of America and New Zealand, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, the New Zealand Academy of Science, the Indian Academy of Agricultural Science, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He is the lead author of ‘Chemical pollution: A growing peril and potential catastrophic risk to humanity’, an international scientific paper warning of the scale of the growing pollution threat to humanity and the consequences of our failure to understand and act on it.

The Chairman of CRC CARE, former senator Sean Edwards, said that Prof. Naidu’s appointment was both a recognition of Australia’s high international standing in contamination and remediation science, and a tribute to his distinguished leadership in the field over more than a generation.

“We are delighted that an Australian scientist has been chosen to head up and drive such an important global endeavour. Ravi is an outstanding contributor and team leader and will play a key role in making ours a cleaner, safer world,” he said.

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