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Maybe the pandemic means soil will get some respect

National Soil Conservation Week has come and gone without much fanfare … even though soil is absolutely fundamental to our food supply.

This year, soil’s annual special recognition event was held April 19-25. But publicity wise, it was up against some stiff competition.

The huge coverage food security is receiving – involving high-profile, newsworthy matters like milk dumping, livestock oversupply and planting uncertainty – has overshadowed everything else.

For example, the same week as National Soil Conservation Week was being recognized, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture said the COVID-19 pandemic had created a crisis on farms that could limit food production.

Separately, the Canadian Pork Council estimated hog farmers in this country would lose $675 million in 2020 because of COVID-19’s ripple effect, and that they needed emergency support.

No wonder soil took a backseat.

But soil was here long before COVID-19 and will remain long after it’s under control. That’s why it’s encouraging to see Senator Rob Black, the Fergus-based independent representative in Senate with a special focus on agriculture, only slightly take his foot off the gas in his call for a national study on soil health.

The senator acknowledges the desperate situation farmers are facing because of the pandemic.

But in a statement he planned to give in the chamber last week about National Soil Conservation week, he reminded us that over the past several months, he’s pushed steadily for a national study at the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.

Originally, he’d hoped to propose the study early this year. But understandably, he’s put that proposal on hold.

“The COVID-19 is, and should be, our priority right now,” he says.

But in his statement, the senator reminds us of some of the reasons he thinks a national soil strategy is vital.

First, consider the statistics.

Only about seven per cent of Canada’s land is suitable for agriculture. It might be fine for forestry, recreation or other uses, but not for growing crops or grazing livestock.

And unfortunately, despite alarm bells ringing for decades about the loss of farmland to urban sprawl, transportation and other such factors, the country has lost almost four million hectares of farmland since the 1970s.

This is a grim picture, given the sudden realization that food insecurity is an issue for Canada.

Farmland loss has a greenhouse gas component, too, Black points out – that is, the increased release of carbon dioxide into the air.

“Agricultural producers are effective managers of natural carbon cycles and the sector provides for carbon sequestration, a process that has become better understood in recent years and can be a major part of climate action,” he says.

Indeed, farmers use various practices to sequester carbon dioxide in their land, such as minimum tillage, planting cover crops, adding manure to the soil and crop rotation. A key here is to turn over or disturb the soil as little as possible and leave the carbon dioxide in the ground.

The agriculture sector is fortunate to have numerous conservation and sustainability organizations that can help farmers learn more about these kinds of practices. But off the farm, a better understanding of soil’s importance is needed too.

Development can’t stand still, but neither should it trump soil conservation. They have to coexist, in ways that perhaps a national soil health study would help reveal.

Soil deserves our respect and attention.

Says Black: “If our soil continues to decline, it will be bad news for Canadian agriculture, the economy and national and international food security. We can’t afford to go backwards.”

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