Food for Thought: Local Food, Soil Health and Climate Change

Working as a cook in Toronto for nearly a decade, I have experienced firsthand the amazing bounty of Ontario’s local food offerings. As Ontarians, we are fortunate to have year-round access to world class beef, pork, poultry, dairy and cheese. In the spring and summer, locally grown fruits and vegetables keep seasonal eating fresh and exciting. What all of Ontario’s local food has in common is it comes from amazingly fertile soil—an often overlooked and unsung hero.  As Local Food Week approaches, June 3-9, 2019, I think it’s important to realize that Ontario’s soil has much more to offer our communities than just delicious food; it also plays a critical role in Ontario’s environmental health and climate change resilience strategy.

Encouraged by the potential of sustainable agriculture’s capacity for environmental conservation, I recently completed a research internship at The Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation where I examined how best management practices (BMPs) can be applied to improve agricultural yields while also providing crucial environmental goods and services, like clean water, habitat for wildlife, and climate change adaptation. BMPs focus on a ‘soil health approach’ which utilizes biodiversity as a driver for agricultural productivity. By reducing tillage and keeping soil covered between harvest and planting, farmers can take advantage of a complex ecosystem of microorganisms and fungi present in healthy soils.

Soil microorganisms create symbiotic relationships with plant roots that help supply crops with available nutrients, making them naturally resilient to pests and pathogens, while reducing the need to apply fertilizers and pesticides. When done right, BMPs increase levels of soil organic carbon, a primary indicator of soil health, which reflects the presence of total biomass in soil.  Steady levels of soil carbon are necessary for maintaining a healthy, porous soil structure, which enables deep water absorption and storage capacity. This provides crops with a buffer to drought and can also reduce the likelihood and severity of floods in local communities.

Did you know?  

  • Healthy soil and sustainable agricultural practices reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases through a process known as soil carbon sequestration.
  • By improving soil health and promoting biodiversity, farmers can reduce their use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, increasing their profits while simultaneously reducing the risk of nutrient runoff, which pollutes surface and ground water.
  • Healthy soil has a porous structure that is able to store significant amounts of water, which mitigates the effects of flooding and provides crop resilience to drought.
  • Many of Ontario’s regional conservation authorities and the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association offer farmers free technical support and financial cost-sharing programs. These help farmers to implement best management practices to improve soil health and water quality.

Many farmers in agricultural regions of the world, including Western Canada, have voluntarily implemented BMPs to improve profitability and ensure long-term productivity of their operations (poor soil health means poor crop yields, and requires the use of expensive fertilizers and pesticides). As a result of reduced tillage, growing cover-crops and leaving plant residues after harvest (plant stocks, stubble and leaves), significant improvements to soil health have been achieved.

Unfortunately, Ontario has been slower to adopt BMPs and environmental measurements show that our soil health is losing a significant amount of soil carbon year over year.

The image below is taken from an interactive timeline created by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and can be accessed HERE.

Innovative farmers in Ontario who are adopting BMPs are breaking away from traditional agricultural conventions that have previously produced high yields at the expense of long-term soil health. These are Soil Champions who are proving that economic sustainability needs to be integrated with environmental (and social) sustainability. As we enjoy the literal fruits of their labour, it’s important that we also appreciate the environmental impact of their production choices.

As a proponent for local food and sustainable agriculture, I’m proud to know that there are organizations like The Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation and the Greenbelt Fund who are devoted to supporting sustainable, local agricultural initiatives, which ensure the future of local food security. 

For more in-depth information about soil health and agricultural best management practices in Ontario, please checkout some of these resources:

“New Horizon: Ontario’s Agricultural Soil Heal and Conservation Strategy” (2018)

  • Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs

“Greenbelt Farmers: Sustaining Soil Health” (2018)

  • Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation

“Putting Soil Health First: A Climate Smart Idea for Ontario” (2016)

  • (former) Environmental Commissioner of Ontario

[Written by David Chang.]

Don't forget to also check out David's Tomato and Sage Soup recipe, HERE.

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