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Healthy soils will help local farmers adapt to climate change

New research by Greenbelt Foundation and Équiterre uncovers barriers to achieving soil health
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Greenbelt Foundation and Équiterre have released a new report—The Power of Soil – An Agenda for Change to Benefit Farmers and Climate Resilience—which illustrates how healthy soils will help the country’s farmers adapt to climate change and play an even larger role in addressing the climate crisis.

Thriving soil ecosystems build productivity, fertility and biodiversity, resulting in better water retention, less dependency on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and bigger margins for farmers. In order to realize these benefits, however, shifts are required in farm practices.

"We know from farmers how important soil health is and that there are often barriers to adopting new practices that address current challenges," says Edward McDonnell, CEO of Greenbelt Foundation.

"Voluntary implementation of new practices can involve investments by farmers, specialized knowledge, and understanding of the business case for an individual farm operation. Through this project, we’ve identified public policy and funding solutions for governments that will help Ontario and Canadian agriculture be a leader in production, profitability, and climate resilience."

Building on previous work, the Power of Soil report offers a comprehensive overview of Canada’s current agri-environmental policy, provides practical solutions, and bridges existing knowledge gaps.

Report findings result from hard work, wisdom, and consensus building among leading agricultural organizations, advisory committees, and other actors from two of Canada’s most important food-producing regions: Ontario and Quebec.

Contributors include the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, National Farmers Union, academics from the University of Guelph, and Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, among other leading groups and individuals.

Challenges and Solutions – Be it extreme weather, resistance to herbicides and pesticides, or debt: the challenges are numerous and mounting for farmers. Extreme weather events, like the 2001 and 2002 droughts or the 2010 and 2011 floods, had devastating impacts on crop yields. Future events could lead to a reduction of 50 per cent in annual yields. Change is not only preferable; it is necessary—and soil health should become a catalyst it.

“Improved soil health is a win-win-win for farms’ viability, the planet, and people,” says Colleen Thorpe, Executive Director at Équiterre. “This natural solution truly is an underestimated tool with which we can face many of the challenges that threaten our food security. We really hope it becomes less and less secret and that our report draws a roadmap for it to become mainstream.”

The report highlights innovative policies and programs, like the creation of a “National Soil Health Network,” a national soil health “check-up tool,” and soil health training programs for advisors and farmers.

Some best management practices are already common in Canada: reduced tillage, planting diverse cover crops, and keeping living roots in soil all year round. The challenge now is to get more farmers to use these techniques and support ongoing innovation and knowledge-sharing.

“Agricultural soil health is directly connected to the food production system and economic growth in Ontario,” said Drew Spoelstra, Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Vice President. “Investment in environmental best management practices is a key driver for farmers as effective stewards of the land, as they work to promote soil health initiatives on their farms. Making soil health a priority improves profitability, productivity, and protects the environment at the same time."