Soil Health rises on the sustainability landscape
Links to human and animal health driving interest
Posted: December 18, 2015
In many ways soil has not received the respect it should. For whatever reason, soils just have not captured the imagination of the world.
That may be about to change. Driven by the designation of 2015 as the International Year of Soils by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, soil health is the new buzzword on the sustainability landscape. New initiatives are taking shape that are linking the quality of soils in Canada and around the world with much broader issues.
Soils Summit 2015
The Summit on Canadian Soil Health in Calgary early December of 2015 organized by the Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC) brought together many of the potential Canadian players on this new landscape.
The Summit gave a solid overview of the situation in Canada through the voices of a broad group. Keynote speaker author and researcher Dr. David Montgomery talked the message of his book, "Dirt. The erosion of civilizations, the challenge and promise of global soil restoration." A key message is that taking care of soils is a lot more than managing erosion.
Fran Burr of the newly formed industry-driven Canadian Roundtable on Sustainable Crops talked the importance of clearly identifying issues, promoting those issues once they are known and collectively investing in resources. Garth Whyte of Fertilizer Canada talked that organization's 4R nutrient stewardship program and made the point that soil health is directly linked to human health.
University of Manitoba researcher Dr. David Lobb told the meeting that conservation tillage may not alone be enough to regenerate soils. The main reason there is interest in soil health today is that it leads to improved water quality, he says, but protecting soil health may not necessarily protect water quality.
Listening to two farmer presenters there was little doubt in the technical ability and leadership of farmers in soil health. Ontario farmer innovator, researcher and soil care advocate, Shawn McRae talked the state of soil health in Eastern Canada. Saskatchewan farmer and soil scientist Tim Nerbas articulately described progress in conservation agrology in Western Canada.
And government clearly wants to be a key player in anything of this scale says Dr. Denis Angers of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Western Canada Conference on Soil Health. Credit: Annemarie Pedersen
Three ideas to watch
Three promising new ideas on soil health have already taken shape.
Soil Health Institute. This broad private / public partnership is a large one and will reach into Canada. It will provide unbiased research to help develop the tools, technologies and best management practices to improve sustainability. Other efforts include standards and measurement, education and economic analysis.
The Institute comes as a result of an initiative called Soil Renaissance produced by the Noble Foundation and the Farm Foundation in the U.S. and designed to spearhead a new era of soil health. These foundations have been active in education and insight land stewardship for decades says Noble Foundation president and CEO, Bill Buckner. And they pointed to a need for a national organization to lead.
Buckner brings powerful credentials to the fight for soil health. He served as head of Bayer CropScience Inc. in Canada so he knows the big players in North America and globally. Energetic and charismatic, he believes there are financial resources available to be tapped in the many foundations like the one he represents in the U.S.
Buckner's Summit message was that Canadian participation in this is welcome.
Soils Health 2020. Initiated by SCCC this one is built around a Canadian leadership position. It's an embryo of an idea at the moment but one the organization which prides itself on being the face and voice of soil conservation in Canada, believes has real potential to grow.
Canada has built a reputation as a world leader in soil health and conservation, built on a history of sustainable crop production systems that reduce tillage, use direct seeding and reduce soil disturbance, says Paul Thoroughgood, SCCC chair.
"But our historic success comes with a great deal of complacency. In the past few years there has been far too little activity on soil conservation and soil health," he told the Summit. "We need to recommit our efforts to ensure the legacy of soil health is sustained in Canada."
Soil Health 2020 is an evolving platform to determine what must be addressed in soil health, and how actions can be applied to priorities in an integrated and coordinated fashion. SCCC will be approaching industry players over the next few months to get input and invite participation. Watch for developments at the SCCC website www.soilcc.ca.
SCCC Chair Paul Thoroughgood
Alberta Soil Health initiative. Built around an applied research framework, the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA) is made up of regional research and forage associations across the province. When the United Nations proclaimed 2015 the International Year of Soils ARECA created the Alberta Soil Health Applied Research Initiative. And they set up the 2015 Western Canada Conference on Soil Health in mid-December in Edmonton, Alta.
Details on the Alberta initiative are located at the initiative website www.albertasoilhealth.ca.
The animal care message
There is a message for animal care and health from the significant rise in soil health interest. Sustainability issues are joined in today's communications sensitive environment. What happens in one camp affects others positively and negatively.
Leaders in soil health are repeatedly linking messaging to human and animal health. That will affect everything from funding support to resource development to message development and training.
It is both a challenge and an opportunity.