Senate committee hears that soils need new priority

Soil experts testify that the federal government should take a greater role in soil research and data management

The Senate committee on Agriculture and Forestry recently heard that agricultural soil is declining, and the issue needs more attention from the federal government.

Five presenters, including several from Ontario, told the committee that trends to less tillage have declined as crop prices have generally been strong and farms have grown larger.

Why it matters: As more soil is lost to urbanization and the quality dwindles the value and productivity of soil, and farmers’ ability to turn a profit from it, decreases.

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The panel consisted of David Lobb, David Berten, Cedric MacLeod, Ontario agronomist Gabrielle Ferguson, and Ontario farmer Don Lobb at the meeting in early May in Ottawa.

The panelists expressed concerns about the dwindling efficiency of Canadian soils and the lack of involvement by the government.

Don Lobb, a pioneer in the use of conservation tillage with no-till planting on his Huron County farm, said soil was once a priority for the government, back in the 1980s, as information was collected and used to understand the state of the soil and the action required to improve it.

He said the Senate of Canada’s risk report of 1984, “set the stage for important activities for soil care and awareness and we made progress. Then things began to disappear, programs ended, soil research lost favour, technology transfer programs were diminished or withdrawn.”

“Farm size has grown rapidly. Rental agreements have resulted in soil being treated as a commodity, to be used and used up. Too many in the agriculture community accept soil degradation as a cost of the doing business,” said Lobb.

The panelists said the federal government could take several measures:

  • It could create an understanding of the current status of soils across the country.
  • Ottawa could hire permanent staff to manage national terrain and GIS data.
  • The federal government could change the way soil is valued by consumers and farmers.

The rate of productive land loss throughout Canada is rising, the committee heard, including Class One farmland that is most valuable for growing food.

Ferguson said that from 2000 to 2011, about 544,000 acres of agricultural land across Canada were lost to settlement. She added that 75 to 85 per cent of that land was Class One.

The loss of productive farmland is accelerating, pushing food production to more fragile land, making soil management key to sustainability.

“Soil protection and care is not an option. It is time we recognize soil care and protection to be a society responsibility, rather than an agriculture burden,” said Don Lobb.

The federal government and its agriculture department were once leaders in co-ordinating soil data and land resource information, said David Lobb, professor of landscape ecology at the University of Saskatchewan, and Don Lobb’s son. He’s conducted research on the financial cost of soil degradation on farms. He said a national team of permanent staff is needed in areas of soil surveys terrain analysis, data base management and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis.

“This is a role only the federal government can play and it’s one that is completely neglected,” said David Lobb.

Cover crops, which help make Canadian soils more resilient by keeping it covered and help build up soil organic matter, were discussed by the panelists.

Ontario Senator Robert Black asked how to promote the use of cover crops on rented land because it is less commonly grown on rented land compared to owned land.

Don Lobb suggested farmers and landlords create commitments to ensure the land be managed in a sustainable way — that if it is managed sustainably, property taxes would decrease.

Cedric MacLeod, executive director with the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association, said farmers and the government must promote soil to society. Soil needs to become known as the lifeblood of civilization, he said.

“Is there an opportunity to refocus in on these conservation measures? Ladies and gentlemen, we need to keep our soils intact. We know tougher weather is coming; it’s going to be drier, wetter and come faster and harder, and we need to keep these soils in place,” he said.

About the author

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Jennifer lives on a farm in Cayuga, Ontario and has a lot of experience in the many aspects of agriculture.

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