We can do much more to improve soil health in Canada

Sarah Rotz, Rod MacRae and Ralph C. Martin

Earlier this year, Ontario released its Agricultural Soil Health and Conservation Strategy. This is a timely strategy as soil health declines are clear: soil organic matter (SOM) is now decreasing on 82% of Ontario farmland. For instance, in Essex county, mean SOM has fallen to an average of 3.47%, while in 1948, 70% of farms in this same county tested above 6%. Meanwhile, 54% of Ontario cropland now has high ongoing levels of erosion risk, while only 20% percent of cropland has high or very high levels of soil vegetation cover. Unfortunately, these trends of rising degradation are present across Canada, and aren’t expected to let up anytime soon.

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 organic matter 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. 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, and Canada is particularly weak at system (or landscape) level assessment.

In this context, we commend the Soil Health and Conservation Strategy for identifying the need for a systems approach to soil health, as well as practices that consider the unique characteristics of each farm. However, we need to go farther by providing tangible supports for farmers to build soil health and minimize agricultural soil and water contamination. For instance, provincial soil strategies must attach concrete funding programs, while also expanding extension services for farmers. Meanwhile, the Ontario Strategy does not even identify any clear, objective and measurable goals for soil health.

As well, many provinces (Ontario included) are calling for the expansion of best management practices (BMP) to enhance soil health—an approach we find concerning. While the Ontario Strategy does 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 soil organic matter and reducing erosion. Practices—such as increasing biodiversity, enhancing crop and livestock interactions, and recycling water and organic inputs—should be supported with long term dedicated research (funded by government), well trained technical experts (funded by government) and peer-to-peer learning groups jointly funded by government and participating farmers. This ensures that farmers do not bear all the costs and risks of transitioning. 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 make significant soil health gains while supporting food providers, we suggest setting concrete farm and system scale soil quality measures as well as steps for achieving them. These goals should provide clear indicators for assessment (such as organic matter, biological activity, aggregate stability, and nutrient balance) while recognizing that soil systems function within specific environmental, social and economic contexts. Provinces should thus work with conservation authorities and municipalities to set localized standards and baselines. Moreover, soil health and contamination assessments should be integrated with provincial water, air and biodiversity assessments (some of which, like water and air quality, are already in place) and then assessed holistically.

 To 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]

Additionally, while Ontario Strategy does identify the need to diversify cropping rotations, which we commend, merely supporting crop diversification through voluntary means does not go far enough. We suggest that provinces set standard limits for diversity, such as a three or four crop minimum, while also supporting markets for crops that are ecologically beneficial, such as forages, cover crops and 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. We also advocate for 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.

Overall, while we commend Ontario for its efforts to take a holistic approach to soil health and conservation, concrete measures and goals are essential. Moreover, provinces must provide specific funds and extension services to ensure that farmers are better supported in their efforts to build soil health on their farms, while more ambitious approaches are also taken to link these efforts with landscape and system scale programs to improve our soil ecosystems across Canada.


[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.