SOIL HEALTH IN THE NATIONAL SPOTLIGHT
BY TRUDY KELLY FORSYTHE • PHOTO OF ROB BLACK COURTESY OF SENATE OF CANADA
Ontario senator Rob Black admitted he is not a soil scientist. Even so, when he was appointed to the Senate in 2018, he began pushing for a national soil study.
“Soil health is tremendously important, especially these days with climate change,” said Black, who chairs the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. “As we study soil health, we can better understand how agriculture is already mitigating climate change, but I think there are opportunities for more.”
Canada’s soil maps date back to the 1940s, but the most recent Senate soil health study was conducted in 1984. The initiative produced a report entitled Soil at Risk: Canada’s Eroding Future, that included 20 recommendations to reduce risks to Canada’s soils. However, Black said not all the recommendations have been acted upon and it is time to revisit the issue.
The purpose of the study is to examine soil health across forest and agricultural lands from a variety of perspectives and to develop a series of recommendations that will inform government, industry and the public.
During the fall of 2022, the committee held nine meetings and heard from more than 30 witnesses. David Lobb, a professor with the Department of Soil Science in the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences at the University of Manitoba delivered one such presentation in September of last year.
Lobb applauded the high quality of soil science research now being carried out across the country, including analytical work on productivity and degradation and the development and promotion of sustainable soil management practices. Despite this, more needs to be done, he said.
“We do not fully understand the nature of the threats to the sustainable use of soils or the management practices needed to protect or restore soil productivity. We do not fully understand the problems, therefore we do not fully understand the [potential] solutions.”
During his presentation to the committee, Lobb pointed out soil degradation and soil productivity across the country is not just about wind erosion on the Prairies or water erosion in other parts of the country. “Tillage erosion is often more important, and when it comes to sustainable soil management, it is all of them: wind, water and tillage erosion and their interactions,” he said, adding the concept of tillage has also changed. “Tillage includes all forms of field operations that disturb and move soil as well as break up and bury crop residues. What we once considered conventional tillage systems and conservation tillage systems have changed with our understanding of the impacts of tillage on soils and crops and with developments in technology.”
The cumulative historic effects of soil erosion and its consequential economic impacts have not been adequately studied, he said. “As noted in my witness statement from 2019, in spite of all of the conservation efforts over the past 40 years, our best estimate is that the severity of crop loss hasn’t improved significantly, and the economic loss has greatly increased.”
Of the points Lobb raised, he said none are new. “However, they are not widely recognized or acted upon. They highlight the complexities of the situation, both technical and social.”
A release date for the study’s final report has not yet been set as the witness process remains ongoing.