How often do you think about soil? The complex mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases and liquids that houses a complex ecosystem crucial to our very survival? The dirt in our backyard and public parks that is used to grow our food which also stores and filters our water and stores carbon? To help direct our attention to this often overlooked resource, the United Nations has declared 5 December, to be the international observance day for soil: World Soil Day.
World Soil Day was instated during the 68th UN General Assembly (2013) and has been celebrated every year since. This day highlights the importance of good soil quality for food security, healthy ecosystems and human well-being. This resource is closely tied to several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including SDG 2: Zero Hunger, SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, SDG 14: Life Below Water and SDG 15: Life on Land.
In its 2015 report, Status of the World’s Soil Resources, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that over 60% of the world’s soils are in a poor state and deteriorating due to soil erosion, nutrient depletion, loss of organic carbon, declining soil biodiversity and other issues.
Why is soil so important?
Soil sustains plants, animals, and humans. Its immense value resides mostly in its productivity for growing food. A healthy soil improves crop yield which benefits humans and their domestic animals. However, soils also provide many other environmental services.
For instance, it maintains water quality standards by retaining nutrients (e.g. phosphorus and nitrogen) and preventing them from reaching streams and lakes. High concentrations of these nutrients in water systems can cause eutrophication which in turn can lead to extensive algal blooms and death in existing ecosystems. In addition, when soils are healthy, they can store carbon from the atmosphere and help decrease greenhouse gas emissions.
Soil is all around us but it is not a renewable resource and its recovery time exceeds human lifespan. Despite its importance for human survival, there has been a worldwide degradation of soil resources caused by inappropriate management practices and population pressure driving unsustainable intensification of soil exploitation.
Does this affect me?
Soil plays a vital part in the economy, environment and society of Ontario. In 2016 the agri-food industry accounted for 5.9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, employed over 800,000 people and resulted in more than $13 billion in revenue for Ontario farmers. However, Ontario soil is under stress due to several reasons:
Increasing demands on soils to grow food for an increasing provincial and global population.
Climate change causing cycles of extreme wet weather and droughts that increase soil erosion.
Water quality issues are linked to contributions from farm runoff such as nutrients and pesticides.
The Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario (ARIO) is developing a soil strategy to be implemented this year (2018) and span until 2030. The work is a collaboration between the government of Ontario and partners from the farming industry, community sectors and indigenous communities and aims to develop strategies to sustain and support healthy soil. The strategy is extensive and includes data collection, research in soil science, innovation, and education into soil management.
What can I do to help?
Preventing soil erosion might seem like a task for the legislature, or for farmers, foresters and park rangers to deal with, but you can help to. Your informed choices on purchases, especially food, can have a direct impact on our local environment. Choosing organic food goes beyond the human health aspects: it includes direct minimization of soil erosion and degradation. The production of organic food in Canada follows strict guidelines to vastly reduce the amount and types of pesticides and fertilizer used, directly reducing eutrophication and ecological impact on land and in water. For instance, in the guidelines for organic food production, published by the Canadian Organic Growers 2006 and amended March 2018, the original 2006 description of organic food production can be found:
“[Agriculture practices should] maintain or improve the physical, chemical and biological condition of soil, and minimize damage to the structure and tilth of soil, and soil erosion.”
It is true that one single organic-produce buyer is not enough but that one person could be part of a larger movement. According to the Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA), 66% of Canadians buy organic items every week, in particular fruits and vegetables, a 10% increase from 2016 to 2017. The Canadian organic market has increased by more than 50% from 2012 to 2017 and has a turnover of $5.4 billion.
And if gardening is your hobby, the City of Toronto is recognized for providing its citizens with options to get experience growing food in an urban setting. However, it is important to keep in mind practices like composting to keep urban farming safe and sustainable.
Join this rapidly growing movement of organic producers and consumers in Canada and help keep enjoying healthy soils and their benefits.