Feature Articles

The good news and bad news on soil conservation

April 7, 2009:

Why National Soil Conservation Week, April 19-25, 2009, matters today

Direct seeding systems now dominate Prairie agriculture cropping systems.
Direct seeding systems now dominate Prairie agriculture cropping systems.

Most Canadians have seen severe soil erosion. It might be the dramatic images of the dustbowl of the Canadian Prairies replayed as a reminder of the dirty thirties. Or it might be images of severely flooded lands battered by water erosion in eastern Canada.

Other than the odd reference to these disasters, it's likely most people don't give soil erosion a second thought. So why should they be concerned about how are we doing as a country on the soil conservation front?

"National Soil Conservation Week was established 24 years ago to get people across Canada thinking about exactly that question," says Glen Shaw executive director of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC). The national independent organization provides a non-partisan public forum for soil conservation.

"There's good news and bad news on the soil conservation front," says Shaw. "There is much to celebrate about soil management today, particularly the revolution in soil management at the farm level and growing public interest in how food is grown. On the other hand, there is still much to be done to have people 'wake up' to the importance of managing the soil in a sustainable manner."

The good news

According to SCCC figures, soil degradation is a problem that costs Canadians two billion dollars a year. The good news, says Shaw, is that there are several forces today taking action to improve soil management practices, focus public attention on the importance of soil, or both.

Producers driving change. Canadian producers have been actively fighting soil erosion with new soil management practices. Low disturbance minimum or zero-till cropping systems that have revolutionized the way producers approach the soil and are used across Canada are one example, says Shaw. "The industry continues to expand and improve these systems and there are clear examples of that progress at work in all provinces," he says.

Low disturbance systems have been directly responsible for a reduction of thousands of acres of summerfallow across the Prairies. That practice, in which soil is not cropped for a season in a bid to control weeds and build moisture reserves, often leaves land exposed to erosion.

Greenhouse gas benefits. Farming and ranching can be a major factor in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by sequestering carbon. The SCCC is currently testing a greenhouse gas calculator across Canada that will give producers a better way to estimate emissions and develop farming systems that play a larger role in mitigating climate change.

Renewed interest in farmland as an investment. Farmland has captured the interest of the investment community and food production has been pegged by some as one of the next big investment opportunities. Suddenly farming has another way to engage the urban consumer, says Shaw, and that helps reinforce the value of good land management.

Consumers driving renewed food interest. Studies show more consumers today are interested in how their food is grown. That interest in food for health and a keen interest in environmental standards are driving an interest in food produced according to certain standards of sustainability. "Soil conservation can be a key tool in long-term stewardship efforts," says Eugene Legge, Newfoundland and Labrador producer and president of SCCC. "Good soil management reduces runoff from the land into water sources and helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Conventional tillage systems in Ontario’s corn belt are giving way to no-till systems.
Conventional tillage systems in Ontario’s corn belt are giving way to no-till systems.

Interest in land use growing. As pressures for land resources increase, there is a new interest at the policy development level as to how land is used and how it fits into long-term sustainability. "This is a strong opportunity to build in soil conservation at the policy level," says Shaw.

Grass roots support. Many of the innovations in soil conservation have come directly from farmer innovation, says Legge. "SCCC's strength in pushing for sustainable soil management lies in that strong grass roots support combined with the scientific, technical and practical expertise of its members."

The bad news

While there is much to celebrate in how agricultural soils are managed today, not all the news is good, says Shaw. Here are a few of the challenges soil management faces.

Still room for improvement at the farm level. Although producers have made great strides in soil management there is still farmland that is not being managed effectively, says Shaw. Some soil is being over-tilled, some is left exposed to wind and water erosion, some has too many crop nutrients applied and there is much to be learned about managing soil quality in cropping systems.

Pushing unsuitable land into agricultural production. One downside from better returns from farming and renewed interest from the investment community is a tendency to push land that is not suitable for farming or ranching into production.

Loss of farmland. More and more farmland today is being lost to creeping urbanization, says Shaw. In many cases, this is top quality farmland and it means a loss of soil that can be difficult or impossible to reclaim for agricultural production in the future.

Pressure for resources increasing. In a world focused on an economy in recession, there is always the risk of soil management becoming lost in the shuffle of what may seem like more immediate concerns. "That's why it's crucial to keep this issue on the public radar through initiatives such as National Soil Conservation Week," says Shaw.

Get more information

More information on SCCC and National Soil Conservation Week is available at www.soilcc.ca. SCCC was formed in 1987 to provide a non-partisan public forum at the national level for soil conservation. Those interested in helping fight soil degradation can become an individual or corporate member of SCCC, says Shaw. Details are at the 'Join SCCC' link on the Web site www.soilcc.ca.