Winfried Blum (Austria)
Position: Professor of Soil Science and Director of the Institute of Soil Research
Department of Forest and Soil Sciences
University of Natural Resources and
Applied Life Sciences (BOKU), Vienna ,
Peter Jordan Str. 82, 1190 Vienna
1. When did you decide to study soil science?
I became interested in soils long before I started my first university studies in forest engineering, in 1960, because during high-school, I assisted in field investigations for forest site classification in southern Germany .
n my second year at Freiburg University , I had basic courses and field training in soil science and became even more interested in this topic. After my final exam in this subject, in 1962, I was asked if I would like to start a PhD thesis on the genesis of soils on limestone in the southern Rhine Valley.I agreed, and started in parallel new studies in analytical chemistry, geology, mineralogy, crystallography and botany (plant sociology and physiology), in order to broaden my knowledge base for soil research. In 1965, I finished my Master in forest engineering, in 1968 my PhD in natural sciences, with a thesis in soil science. In 1971, I concluded my habilitation (Dr.rer.nat.habil.) in soil science.
2. Who has been your most influential teacher?
In the first place, this was Professor Robert Ganssen at Freiburg University , who wrote the first book on soil geography in German language, which had a very wide distribution among geographers and which was also translated into other languages.
After the conclusion of my first studies, I received a special scholarship, which allowed me to study soil science in Nancy , France , with Professor Philippe Duchaufour, at his Centre of Biological Soil Science of the CNRS and at the Nancy University . Both teachers were most influential, the first one on my interest in soil genesis and geography, and the second one with regard to the ecology of soils.
3. What do you find most exciting about soil science?
The most exciting and challenging aspect of soil science is the complexity of soils, which is like a scientific puzzle and requires a broad basis in sciences. This complexity is not only inherent in the genesis of soils, but also in their functions for human society and the environment. As Secretary-General of ISSS/IUSS for 12 years, I had the chance to travel in many parts of the world and to experience the complexity of soil systems, due to the very different soil forming factors.
4. How would you stimulate teenagers and young graduates to study soil science?
As a student at Freiburg University, I taught soil science to high-school pupils of different ages, with the experience that the easiest way to stimulate young people is to explain them the important functions of soil for humans and the environment and how intensively human life is linked to soil.
During my time as university teacher, each year I invited high-school students of different ages to come to my laboratories and to study soil through the microscope and through simple physical and chemical experiments, which they found fascinating, e.g. watching the behaviour of biiota in soils through the microscope, or to measure carbonates, pH and other soil characteristics. Here, the most important thing was not to look only at soil from a distnace, but to take soil into one's hands and to study it at close range.
5. How do you see the future of soil science?
As a realist and an optimist, I am convinced that soil science will become more important in the medium to long term, because the demands on soil will strongly increase, from the production of food, feed and fibre, to biofuel and other goods and services, including its role in global atmospheric cycling, e.g. greenhouse gas emissions and carbon storage. This prevision is based on different current developments: for example the still ongoing increase of the world population (about 85 millions per year), the move of about 1 billion people from rural to urban areas during the next decade, leaving behind subsistence agriculture and local food production, thus putting pressure on the local, regional and international food food markets, the exponentially increasing demand for grain for producing animal protein in some parts of the world, and finally the constant loss of fertile land through sealing, for the development of physical/technical infrastructures, such as housing, industrial production, transport ways and others. Currently, Europe alone loses about 10 kms of soil and land per day. Under these circumstances, the remaining soil has to be used in a more knowledgeable way ("knowledge-based bio-economy"), in which soil science should and will play a dominant role.