Research & Policy Director, Greenbelt Foundation
Canadian Sustainable Agriculture Specialist
Modern soil science is a marvel, and it makes clear the need to preserve the health of Ontario’s Greenbelt soil. It’s going to be the farmers who step up to do it.
Soil is the lifeblood of civilization, and this is no less true in Southern Ontario than anywhere else. The fertile earth of Ontario’s Greenbelt fills Canadian stomachs, helps drive Canada’s export economy, and sustains the natural environment in an area where one in four Canadians live. If Ontario’s soil remains vibrant and healthy, it’s a renewable resource that will enable food independence, economic growth, and climate sustainability. But, if the health of our soil isn’t adequately protected, future generations will be left with a legacy only of natural wealth squandered.
A powerful and delicate resource
Ontario’s Greenbelt is one of the most fertile and biologically-diverse regions in Canada. It’s unique among protected areas for being home to nearly 5,000 working farms, meaning that conservation efforts here have a direct and measurable interplay with the economic resilience of Canadian farmers. Fortunately, in the arena of soil health, what’s good for the environment is also good for the agricultural bottom line, as is clearly shown in the recent research-based soil report “The Power of Soil,” produced by the Greenbelt Foundation in collaboration with Équiterre. The report was produced with extensive consultation from agricultural groups, farm experts, and individual farmers.
“The heart of the soil health agenda is the long-term viability and profitability of farm businesses,” says Greenbelt Foundation Research and Policy Director Thomas Bowers. “Our soils are a vital strategic resource for the province and the country. They’re highly productive and highly fertile. By protecting the soil and the viability of farm businesses, we’ll see so many other benefits.”
Conserving the health of our soil and reaping these benefits is an all-hands-on-deck endeavour because the soil itself is far more complex than we often give it credit for. One tablespoon of healthy soil is home to an estimated seven billion microorganisms. These organisms coexist in a vibrant ecosystem that sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, purifies water, and cycles essential nutrients to crops and natural flora.
“Soil is an ecosystem, not an inanimate substrate,” explains Canadian sustainable agriculture specialist Paul Smith. “It’s alive, and the living creatures drive the productivity and nutrient cycling within the soil. It’s like you have microscopic livestock in the soil and they’re working for the farmers.”
We need to act to regenerate soil health
As things currently stand, the overall health of the soil in Ontario is under threat. Fortunately, we have a much better understanding of soil science today than we did during the 20th century and our toolkit for addressing this concern is deeper than ever before. Recognizing the need, farm organizations, governments, and industry came together to develop “New Horizons: Ontario’s Agricultural Soil Health and Conservation Strategy,” a long-term collaborative plan to address soil health in Ontario, in 2018.
“Agriculture is a pretty high-tech business now,” says Smith. “We’re taking action specifically because we’ve been able to detect these changes early with technology like computer models of changes in soil organic carbon and large databases of on-farm soil tests. Improving the soil is still a learning process on each farm, once farmers have the technologies and the know-how. The big challenge is marshalling the knowledge and resources and deploying them in a way that’s helpful for farmers and their advisors.”
“The Power of Soil” report outlines precisely how we can get that job done. The foundation of the entire initiative is collaborative action. “We’re not focused on regulatory mechanisms, but instead on the voluntary stewardship practices farmers can undertake and how we can support them,” says Bowers. “Good soil health management practices are good for business. Greenbelt farmers are already champions of the environment and they’re heavily invested in the long-term health of their land. We need to support innovation and help farmers understand the best management options in their particular situation.”