A Canadian soil health vision and strategies

Sarah Rotz, Rod MacRae and Ralph C. Martin

Canadian agro-food regulation has largely been developed and framed from a food safety and anti-fraud perspective, focusing on ‘maximum allowable levels’ of inputs and contaminants, rather than linking food system approaches and function to goals of health promotion, social justice and environmental sustainability. While surely a reasonable regulation, this approach has created a regulatory culture focused on controlling substances, rather than governing the health of the system, including soil health.

No comprehensive soil health legislation or policy currently exists at the provincial or federal level in Canada. And so, while the Federal government has soil organic matter (SOM) and erosion indicators, only limited regulatory structures and policies are in place that identify (or work toward) soil health goals.

To improve soil health in Canada, a comprehensive soil health strategy should be a clear objective for all provinces across Canada.

A Soil Health Vision

Maintaining soil health is foundational to a regenerative and sustainable agri-food system. Healthy soils have the capacity to maintain their structure and transform carbon through SOM decomposition and nutrient cycling while supporting biological communities. For soil systems to effectively sustain food production and conserve ecological systems, soils must be managed in ways that minimize soil loss, erosion, contamination and compaction while also enhancing soil biotic populations and maintaining balanced nutrient loads.

For the goal of healthy soil systems to be achieved, holistic policy, programming, and funding initiatives must be established in Canada, most likely at the provincial scale. How, though, will we know whether this vision has been realised?

Currently, our best method of measuring soil health is by assessing soil organic matter and organic matter-dependant properties. However, since soil systems function within larger environmental systems, soil health cannot be limited to on-farm assessment. Instead, system level assessment is necessary. Canada is particularly weak at system (or landscape) level assessment.

System level soil health assessment demands the introduction of comprehensive provincial soil strategies. These strategies should identify both farm and system scale soil quality goals as well as how to achieve them, while providing tangible supports for farmers to build soil health and minimize agricultural soil and water contamination. These goals would also provide clear indicators for assessment (such as soil organic matter (SOM), biological activity, pH, and nutrient balance) while recognizing that soil systems function within specific environmental, social and economic contexts; which must be accounted for. So, while soil quality must be measured and tracked on both urban and rural food lands across Canada, setting localized standards and baselines is essential. Moreover, soil health and contamination assessments should be integrated with water, air and biodiversity assessments (some of which, like water and air quality, are already in place) and then assessed holistically.

To achieve this vision, we recommend the following:

  1. Build soil organic matter (SOM)

All soil health strategies should support farmers with expanded resources and financial tools to help them build SOM and reduce soil erosion. Currently, many provinces are calling for the expansion of best management practices (BMP) to enhance soil health—an approach we find concerning. While some strategies, such as Ontario, do identify that BMPs should be customized for particular production systems, the appropriate combination of practices varies from field to field and farm to farm. Farmers and land users should be given the opportunity and supports to develop the most effective combination of practices for their land and production system. Subsequently, farmers would then be assessed on the outcome.  As it stands, the focus in both Ontario and across Canada on BMPs and the ‘4R’ Nutrient approach (which matches the crop and production system to the optimal fertilizer type, rate, timing and location) maintains a fairly reductionist and reactive approach to soil health, while omitting the concrete measures and supports essential for making significant gains.

Rather, we suggest that soil strategies emphasize the value of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and agroecological practices, as they are known to symbiotically minimize chemical inputs while concurrently building SOM and reducing erosion. Practices to build SOM—such as increasing biodiversity, enhancing crop and livestock interactions, and recycling water and organic inputs—should be supported with long term research (funded by government), well trained technical experts (funded by government) and peer-to-peer learning groups which are jointly funded by government and participating farmers. This support should include shifts from annual to perennial crops as well as crop diversification, incentivizing natural habitat and buffer zones, and infrastructure development for on-farm and local manure and composting networks.

To further support farmers in this transition, soil strategies should be more specific and ambitious in identifying resources and financial tools to help them reach—and exceed—this goal. For instance, strategies should set a goal to measure the outcome of SOM in every field across the province, every 5 years, with a scientific protocol, and adjust farm property tax accordingly. In turn, farmers who have good to very good levels of SOM or who are increasing their SOM levels should pay lower property tax, as they are simultaneously investing in the foundation of food production and ecological sustainability. On the other hand, land owners with SOM levels that are poor or declining should reasonably pay higher property tax. Provincial governments should underwrite such a program, in order for municipalities to maintain a viable property tax base.

As well, soil erosion and degradation are known to worsen when fields are not covered. Given that soil is a public good, it is essential to protect it. We suggest that strategies set a goal that, within 5 years, a minimum of 50% of all fields across the province will be covered in the non-cropping season, and within 10 years, 100% of all fields will be covered[1]. Farmers should then be able to apply for exemptions, and farm property tax should be adjusted for non-compliance.[2]

We also suggest that provinces set standard limits for diversity, such as a three or four crop minimum, while also supporting crops that are ecologically beneficial, such as perennials. To support farmers in diversifying their crops, food systems must be re-localized to some degree, as export-oriented markets essentially export soil, moisture, energy and nutrients to other jurisdictions. Countering this is especially important if we intend to keep food growers on the land and maintain a fairly paid (and treated) supply of farm workers.

To do so, urban and rural agri-food networks must be better integrated and designed around shorter supply chains that include regional distributors and markets as well as food hubs, and regional food networks. Many provinces in Canada have not sufficiently supported their horticultural sectors over the years, resulting in significant trade deficits that go way beyond biotic and abiotic constraints. So, localisation needs to focus particularly on the horticultural sector, which would concurrently support healthy eating goals. As the supply of fresh local food grows, people would rely less on imported produce. In order to mitigate the negative social, economic and ecological impacts of trade shifts, provinces must also support a global execution of soil health strategies. This would offer a more level playing field for farmers internationally.

Meanwhile, we know that farm size also matters. In order to enhance local production, we can build and maintain a population of small, medium and community-based food providers who are well-supported in growing a diversity of foods for regional consumption. This goal is relevant to soil health because we know that more diverse crop rotations improve soil health, and, in many cases, smaller acreages and mixed crop-livestock operations are more suitable for diversified agroecological systems and methods. At the same time, larger farms may also need planning and policy support to conduct practices that are known to build soil health, such as mulching, manuring, cover cropping, minimum tillage, and crop rotation.

  1. Soil health, education & reconciliation

In order to support goals of reconciliation with Indigenous nations in Canada, soil strategies must be developed and governed equitably between settler and Indigenous nations, with leadership and direction from Indigenous food growers and providers (hunters, fishers, foragers) as well as marginalized and low-income food consumers.

Public education and skill-building around soil health is also essential, and since land use and education are within provincial jurisdiction, soil strategies should work with provincial health and education in developing a soil health education campaign. Provinces should support primary and secondary school curriculums across Canada to educate youth on the role of soil health in mitigating environmental degradation and climate change. As a result, children would build in-depth knowledge of local and indigenous foods, forest garden systems, ecologies and the soil management practices that support them, along with food growing and preparation skills. Soil health would also become an important part of the movement for food literacy across the general population.

  1. Food prices & diets that support healthy soils

Food prices should reflect their social, ecological and health impacts (for better or worse).  In parallel to the development of soil strategies, initiatives are needed that internalize external costs and other market failures in the food system. The perverse forces distorting food prices disfavour both farmers and eaters.

Diets must be promoted to support all these shifts. Research on GHG reductions in the food system suggests that sustainable diets tend to include the following foods and practices: ecologically-produced plant-based foods; minimally processed foods (with prudent reductions in problematic processing aids such as salt, sugar and fat); minimal food packaging; minimal wasted food at the distribution, retail, and household scale; menus designed around locally available foods; most food sourced within a few hundred kilometres, distributed by rail, or through collaborative trucking mechanisms; imported foods should be delivered by ship and rail, and minimal truck transport; purchase certified fair trade goods where possible; walkable markets and grocery stores; in the off-season, maximize dried and canned (but no aluminum) foods.

Strategies for Getting There

All provinces would develop a holistic soil health strategy that includes:

  • Expanded agroecological multifunctionality, and specifically environmental goods and services (EGS) funding and programming. A comprehensive set of programs are introduced that include voluntary stewardship and a publicly legislated and supported program that compensates farmers for agroecological practices and high/rising SOM.
  • The introduction of a pesticide and contaminant reduction strategy that includes research and development, regulation, knowledge transfer and fiscal incentives to make Canada a leader in sustainable low-risk pest management.
  • Expanded farmer-to-farmer support programs to help farmers work together to build SOM: this could be offered to all farmers who have low or falling SOM. Farmer mentors would be compensated (these could be those who have exceptionally high/rising SOM).
  • A program with funding attached to support farmers in building sustainable agroforestry systems on their farms (e.g. fruit and nut trees).
  • Restrictions on removing buffer areas, wind breaks and naturalized habitats, unless new habitats/areas are created (this would account for/not condemn shifting land use systems).
  • Tangible funding and extension support for building SOM through perennial forages specifically.
  • Compensation to farmers for high and/or increasing their SOM.
  • Penalties to farmers for soil mining (falling or low SOM), which includes cross-compliance policy.
  • Measurement and tracking of SOM and health on every farm in the province.
  • Soil established as a public good.
  • The introduction of a soil contamination approach that mimics water contamination measures in Canada. Specifically, soil would be protected using measures similar to water protection, which has many more legislative dimensions and associated programming than soil. Specifically, soil protection policy would include passive contamination.
  • The integration of SOM into land values.
  • The promotion of semipublic/local entities to help govern land: a structure of local/bioregional accountability that moves away from current colonial structures. This would support collective gathering, sharing and adapting.
  • Increased support for small and biodiverse farmers within provincial and federal risk management programs.
  • Expansion of federal and provincial funding to support non-industrial farms, including small-scale and community-based modes of farming.
  • The introduction of policy restrictions around land ownership based on one’s income, access to capital, number of properties owned, acreage, and, interest in food provisioning. The systems of land stewardship/governance would be determined by a shared vision based on equal nation-to-nation relations between settler and Indigenous peoples.
  • Programming to promote primary and secondary school curriculum around food provisioning (farming, hunting, foraging, fishing etc.), consumption and soil health. The approach should not prescriptive or shaming, but recognizes the important role of culture, income and geography in shaping what ‘healthy’ and ‘sustainable’ food means. Kids of all ages would have in-school access to farming, gardening, and preparing food and learning about the food and soil system. Within this curriculum, attention and care would be given to contextualizing the impacts of settler colonialism on food systems and its destructive impacts on Indigenous food systems and Indigenous peoples access to their traditional territories.


[1] According to the Strategy, winter cover crops in Ontario were at 25% in 2016.

[2] An example of an eligible exemption might be if cover crop seed was tested and seeded in a timely manner and then did not germinate.