Planting the seed about the importance of soil health

What’s the big deal about soil? It’s all over the place. And, anyway, it only affects farmers, right?

That might be your first reaction upon seeing this headline. That’s because we really don’t talk much about soil, one of our most precious resources. I want to change that.

Of course, soil is important for farmers, but it’s equally important for all of us, as people who need food to survive. If our soils continue to be degraded at the current rate, we will not be able to sustain our food production. And that should be a scary thought for us all.

In 2016, only 7% of Canada’s soil was deemed suitable for agriculture. That’s an alarmingly low number. And soil is not a renewable resource. Many agricultural practices of the past (and some in the present) have had a damaging effect on our soil, including the reduction of organic matter, erosion, and salinization.

According to Dr. David Lobb, a soil expert and a professor at the University of Manitoba, the cost of soil erosion in terms of lost crop yield was $3 billion in 2011. He said that adopting better farming and tilling practices would solve only half the problem; we also need more aggressive strategies to increase the organic matter in soils and to restore the productive capacity of eroded soils.

If you are reading this and realizing you haven’t heard much about this issue, you’re not alone. That’s because we have a major lack of data around soil. The government needs to take a lead on collecting, analyzing, and sharing data on soil productivity so that we can move forward with a plan.

There are soil experts, researchers, and advocates in Canada, some of whom have been concerned with soil health for decades, but we need to start listening to them. We can’t afford not to.

There was a push towards soil conservation back in the 1980s, but since then the idea has been somewhat eroded (no pun intended).

The senator Robert Black. | Photo courtesy of the Senate of Canada

Many farmers are engaging in soil-friendly practices, such as planting cover crops to keep the soil active all year round. However, short-term cost can be high so economic factors often prevent farmers from adopting certain sustainable methods. Tradition and unfounded perceptions are further impediments to change. We need real, strong leadership from the government in order to build momentum around soil protection.

This issue is very much connected to that of climate change. Not only is the loss of CO2 from the soil detrimental to the soil itself, but that CO2 doesn’t just disappear – it goes into the atmosphere. In 2019, it’s well past time for us to focus on soil, through sustainable and environmentally friendly practices.

What we know for sure is that we can’t carry on with the “business as usual” approach. government must prioritize soil health. Otherwise, the future of Canadian agriculture, and thus food production and availability, will be pretty bleak.

Senator Robert Black represents Ontario in the Senate.

This article appeared in the October 14, 2019, edition of The Hill Times.