|Thomas Bowers, Research Manager at Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, shares why he thinks soil health is an important issue in today's battle against climate change and crucial in the support of a healthy agricultural system.|
Soil health is one of the most interesting and highest priority topics I work on. It affects all the issues the Foundation is concerned with: agricultural viability, healthy communities, environmental sustainability and climate change. It is also one of the most pressing issues facing the Greenbelt, Ontario, Canada and the world.
The Greenbelt Foundation is investing in a number of projects to improve soil health in the Greenbelt and mitigate climate change.
“Despite all our achievements we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains” - Farm Equipment Association of Minnesota and South Dakota
Soil is very important. 95% of the world’s food comes from soils. A quarter of the planet’s biodiversity can be found in soil and there can be more living creatures in a spoon of good soil than there are people on the earth.
Additionally, some scientists believe that improving global soil health could be our best hope of preventing run away global warming. Most of the world’s organic carbon is stored in soils (it’s not only in trees!), and “a mere 2% increase in the carbon content of the planet’s soils could offset 100% of all greenhouse gas emission going into the atmosphere”.
The challenge is that soil is eroding at an alarming rate due to unsustainable agricultural practices, and this means more greenhouse gas emissions. The UN FAO calculated that at current rates of soil degradation all of the world's top soil could be gone within just 60 years.
Contributing Factors to Soil Degradation
We are lucky to have good soil in Ontario, but in many places, soil health is declining for a variety of reasons:
- Increased demand on soil to grow food for a growing population at home and abroad
- Intensive cropping, tillage and other practices that degrade soil health
- Pressure on farmers that incentivize short-term economic gain over the long-term benefits of investing in soil health and conservation
- Increased frequency of extreme weather due to climate change
- Loss of farmland to sprawl and soil contamination
What are the Benefits of Healthier Soils?
In addition to being a vital resource for food production, healthy soils provides benefits including:
- Improved air and water quality by reducing nutrient run off
- Improved farm profitability, better yields and quality of life in rural areas
- Reduced soil erosion, and enhanced resilience to droughts and floods
Soil Health in the Greenbelt
The Greater Golden Horseshoe is a fascinating place. It is one of the fastest growing and most diverse regions in North America, is home to 1/4 of all Canadians, has a highly productive and profitable agricultural sector, is one of the most ecologically diverse places in Canada, and is a transition point between predominantly agriculture to the south and more natural cover to the north. At the heart of this meeting point is the Greenbelt, a protected landscape that becomes more valuable every passing day.
All these riches make the region prosperous and a fantastic place to live and work. They also make the region highly vulnerable – there is a massive concentration of human and ecological capital (including soil) that is under threat from climate change, environmental degradation and urban sprawl.
Improving soil health is critical for all of Southern Ontario, but it is that concentration and integration of ecological and human capital that makes it such a high priority in the Greenbelt. There are more people, properties, factories, offices, roads, rivers, birds and bees that are affected by, and benefit from the health of farmers’ soils.
The Province is in the process of finalizing a soil health strategy that will be a framework spanning 2018-2030 to address the many complex issues impacting the health of agricultural soils. Farmers are the true champions of soil health and we need to create the supporting conditions that allow them to do their job. Investing in soil health is essential to preserve the long-term viability of agriculture, so that we still have abundant harvests 60 years from now. And bonus, it's really good for climate change too.
The Foundation will contribute to all these efforts over the coming years.