Environment Commissioner Report Chastises Fertilizer Use; Encourages Measuring Soil Carbon

To quote Monty Python: Always look on the bright side of life.

And so that’s how we’ll begin a discussion on Ontario’s Environment Commissioner‘s latest report entitled, Putting Soil Health First.

There’s some great stuff in there: recognizing that our agricultural soils’ health is paramount to long-term soil productivity, that living roots and residue cover are vital to soil health, and that diverse crop rotations and decreased tillage have positive impacts on soil health.

But then, it gets a little uncomfortable. And not because Dianne Saxe, Ontario’s environment commissioner, is challenging farmers to take care of their soil, but because of two things: a) the very apparent disconnect between what’s already happening on this front in Ontario (by farmers themselves AND the ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs; and, b) the not-so-subtle demonizing of synthetic fertilizer (page 4).

The introduction to the report simultaneously applauds food production gains while chastising farmers for their apparent abuse of the environment. Thanks, I guess?  It’s a common theme, it seems, from the higher ups in Ontario — instead of starting out with a good baseline of where things are at on a field level, let’s make assumptions and go from there. Case(s) in point: farmer-driven neonic stewardship ahead of neonic regulations; current cover crop use and adoption rates (although unmeasured, uptake has been huge); and, strip and reduced tillage use. My point is, the report paints a great picture of what the commish would like to see, but is light on a baseline of where we’re already at. And what Ontag has been doing is far from unsubstantial.

Source: Pinterest user Gina Alagata
Source: Pinterest user Gina Alagata

Dr. Bill Deen, with the University of Guelph, has been running a long-term crop rotation study since 1980, and a tillage study since 1974. (Read more about both here and here). Dr. David Hooker has a similar rotation study at Ridgetown (here).

There’s no mention of this work in the report, but of four write-ups on “soil champions”, two are American, not even Canadian. In reality, Canada is far ahead of Americans in rotation research and uptake, and rotation has been proven time and again to be the cornerstone of soil health, says Peter Johnson, resident agronomist for RealAgriculture. 

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) is in the process of updating its soil health policy (read “Sustaining Ontario’s Agricultural Soils — Towards a Shared Vision“) — that gets a sidebar mention on page 36 of a 46 page document.

The one acknowledgement is that Ontario isn’t doing enough to measure and track soil carbon levels. On this we can agree. Building up soil carbon is a great goal — independent of any carbon tax scheme put forward by the powers that be. Soil carbon has been called the most important agricultural input; its role in soil health and productivity trumps any cap and trade goals. What’s more, soil carbon levels are an excellent barometer for soil productivity and health — I can throw my support behind a province-wide initiative that gets that rolling.

The caveat is that changing soil carbon (thought of as organic matter, by most farmers) is an incredibly slow process. Trying to measure increases in soil carbon is really a 10- or 20-year objective, not something short-term that fits within a government mandate. 

But what does this report really mean for Ontario’s farmers? The office holds no legislative power — the commission can’t set policy or make regulations. But there’s a very clear message in the report: move towards organic-type production methods.

The vilification of “synthetic fertilizer” pays no heed to recent OMAFRA/U of G research that shows very significant impacts of maintaining decent soil fertility levels to achieve high yields (which, create biomass), something that is paramount in both feeding the world AND maintaining economic viability of farmers. Everyone seems to have this concept that plant nutrients can just magically appear to support high yields. It’s simply not the case — you cannot create something (crop yields) from nothing. 

The real concern in this: OMAFRA is currently in the midst of a “consultation” on future soil policy. While it’s hardly mentioned in the comish’s report, will OMAFRA be using this as justification for the next wave of red tape for Ontario’s farmers? Time will tell.

Listen below for Shaun Haney and my discussion on the Environment Commissioner’s report (caution: it gets a little ranty): 

Not sure what the Office of the Environment Commissioner does? Read more here.

One thought on “Environment Commissioner Report Chastises Fertilizer Use; Encourages Measuring Soil Carbon

  1. Someone needs to suggest to the environment commissioner to drive her car without putting gas in it. Course maybe being the environment commish she uses a horse. Then suggest she quit feeding it

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