A soil scientist from The University of Western Australia has been honoured in the latest issue of a leading international publication, the European Journal of Soil Science, for explaining the way nutrients especially phosphate react with soil and contributing to our understanding of plant nutrition.
Professor Jim Barrow, aged 82 but still actively engaged in scientific research, was recognised for research which he started 45 years ago.
It is the second time in two years that a UWA soil scientist has been acclaimed in the prestigious journal. In 2013, Professor Jim Quirk, who was head of the Department of Soil Science and Plant Nutrition at the University from 1964 to 1974, was similarly acknowledged.
Professor Alan Robson, also an eminent soil scientist and former UWA Vice Chancellor, said the work of Professors Barrow and Quirk was foundational to the University's current Academic Ranking of World Universities of 26 in the world in the field of Life and Agricultural Sciences.
The European Journal of Soil Science this month republished the paper, recognising it as a ‘landmark' in this, the International Year of Soils.
Professor Barrow wrote the paper, "A mechanistic model for describing the sorption and desorption of phosphate in soil", in 1983 when he was working with the CSIRO in WA and undertaking research with UWA and the then Department of Agriculture.
Professor Barrow said the way nutrients reacted with soil and the way they were rationed to plants by soil was not understood. This was especially true for phosphate, an expensive fertiliser needed in fairly large amounts.
He showed that when low-phosphate soils were first fertilised, phosphate reacted first with the outside of soil particles and then very slowly soaked into the particles. This meant it became less accessible to plants. This was why it was necessary for farmers to reapply phosphate and to supply more phosphate than was removed by crops in the previous year.
Professor Barrow has recently shown that this "soaking-in" behaviour only occurs for low-phosphate soils. Once phosphate has been applied for several years it stops. He thinks that many Western Australian soils have already reached the stage and fertiliser plans made up in the early days of fertilising are no longer appropriate. Too much phosphate is being applied and especially on the coastal plain, which is polluting our rivers and estuaries.
This work required complicated computer models to check whether the theory really did describe the behaviour. Professor Barrow said he began his research at a time when the CSIRO had one central computer.
"You stored programs on punched cards and accessed the computer via a card reader connected to a landline. You had to wait your turn for your ‘batch' to be processed. It was very slow indeed. And then we obtained our very own personal computers. They were laughably slow by modern standards but, just imagine, you could spend your whole day just working on the computer. That was when we really did make progress."
2015 has been named the International Year of Soils to raise awareness and promote the sustainability of our limited global soil resources which are a foundation source of food and fresh water.
Professor Jim Barrow (UWA School of Plant Biology)
Hackett Professor Kadambot Siddique (UWA Institute of Agriculture) (+61 8) 6488 1993
David Stacey (UWA Media and Public Relations Manager) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716