Senator shines light on improved soil health

Robert Black says it’s time for a broad Senate study on soil health, perhaps an update of a study published 35 years ago

About 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greeks identified the basic elements of life — air, water, earth and fire.

Of those four, the modern media dedicates most of its attention to air, water and fire.

Earth, or soil, isn’t usually a topic for the late-night news. Compared to a forest fire, a hurricane or a flood, a field of soil in Western Canada is unlikely to kill a human being or destroy 800 homes.

Soil may not be sexy or menacing, but Senator Robert Black wants politicians and the public to think more about agricultural soils in Canada.

“There’s air and water and soil. There’s lots of focus on air and water. Soil, in my mind, is the second cousin,” said Black, who became a senator in February 2018.

Before joining the Senate, as an independent from Ontario, Black was the chief executive officer of the Rural Ontario Institute. He is also a past-president of the Canadian 4-H Council, served as general manager for the Ontario Soybean Growers and worked at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture for 15 years.

In 2012, because of his years of service to 4-H, he received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

As part of his work as a senator, Black is a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. In early May, committee members heard from soil scientists and other experts, who talked about the state of soil health in Canada.

Their testimony convinced Black that agricultural soils are in trouble.

“(Based) on some of the speakers we heard last week … I think they (soils) are at risk…. I’m not a soil scientist but I think it’s an area we should look at (more closely).”

Black believes it’s time for a broad Senate study on soil and soil health, perhaps an update of a study published 35 years ago.

In 1984, Senator Herbert Sparrow released a report titled “Soil at Risk: Canada’s eroding future.” The study proposed a number of solutions to soil degradation in Canada.

Black remembers talking about the report when he was studying agriculture at the University of Guelph.

“I heard the other day … it was the most distributed Senate report, ever …. (but) I can’t confirm that,” he said.

A new Senate study on soil health won’t happen in 2019 because Parliament will dissolve in a few weeks and federal politicians will start campaigning for the fall election.

Black is looking ahead to 2020.

“Under the new Parliament … (I want) to renew a broader, longer-term study on the health of soils, across Canada,” he said. “I think it’s time. I absolutely think it’s time.”

David Lobb, a University of Manitoba soil scientist, was one of the experts who spoke to the standing Senate committee on agriculture and forestry.

Similar to Black, Lobb believes agricultural soils in Canada are at risk and it’s costing farmers billions in lost production.

Lobb has been talking about eroded soils on hilltops of farmland for about a decade. He estimated that 10 percent of Canada’s cropland has moderately to severely eroded soil. Poorer yields on 10 percent of the land base is costing Canadian farmers about $3.1 billion each year in lost productivity.

“The areas where soil erosion has been most severe, like the hilltops … you have almost no capacity to grow crops, or plants of any type,” Lobb said in January.

Black said based on responses from standing ag committee members, a new report on soil is possible.

“Lots of interest by my colleagues…. They were amazed and overwhelmed by the information that they got,” he said. “(But) I’ll continue to push (for it) … over the summer.”

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