Looking Back in Despair (Part 4)

by Theresa Peluso

All things are bound together. All things connect.
                             –   Chief Seattle, Duwamish

Connector of lives

Indeed, everything connects to everything else.  In exploring the ongoing destruction of our environment, it is evident that the damage to our forests and wildlife, the degradation of our air and water, and the human-caused heating of our planet all interact with one another, like a global danse macabre.

And so it is with soil, an element of nature on which all terrestrial life depends.  Here is how Wendell Berry, an American novelist, poet, environmental activist, and farmer, describes it in his book The Unsettling of America:

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.

And yet many people take soil for granted.  For one thing, they don’t understand that it is a finite resource.

All the soil we have on our planet was formed through physical, chemical and biological processes, from parent material on the Earth’s surface, starting with the rock that formed at the Earth’s inception.  Although the creation of soil is an ongoing process, it is extremely slow and incremental.  The soil we have now has most likely taken millennia to reach its current state.

For another, many people don’t appreciate just how complex soil is.  It’s not just dirt; it’s a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids and living organisms, and can be considered a self-contained ecosystem because of its complexity.  There is a reciprocal relationship between soil and the functions it performs.  As soil performs the role of acting as a medium for plant growth, a means to store, supply and purify water, a home for organisms, and a modifier of our planet’s atmosphere, these functions, in turn change the soil and its properties.

Not only is soil an ecosystem in and of itself, it is also a major component of the Earth’s ecosystem. Soil nourishes the plants that are the basis for all life, recycles nutrients and organic wastes, holds and filters surface water, and maintains our atmospheric gases – mainly nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide.  Soil also possesses most of the Earth’s genetic diversity, containing, as it does, a nearly infinite number of organisms, mostly microbial.  These organisms enrich the soil by transforming dead matter into humus and other nutrients, aerating it, and helping with mineral and nutrient cycling and chemical reactions.

In general, soil composition is roughly two-fifths inorganic matter, one-twentieth organic matter, one-fourth water and one-fourth air.  The organic portion of soil is composed of micro-organisms (dead and alive) and decaying plants.

How much soil do we have?

A very small portion – 11 percent – of the earth’s soils is suited to farming. The remaining soils are either too wet, too dry, too shallow, chemically unsuitable or permanently frozen. Approximately one-third of the land on our planet that is suited to farming, is moderately to highly degraded because of erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution of soils.

In all of Canada, cropland (Class 1, 2 and 3 soils) makes up slightly more than 5 percent of Canada’s total land area – just under 46 million hectares.  (One hectare is 10,000 square metres.) The percentage of Ontario territory that is farmland is less than 5 percent (about 20,750 ha), based on data that is already nearly 10 years old.  In fact, according to the Ontario Farmland Trust (https://ontariofarmlandtrust.ca/policy/), we continue to lose 175 acres (70.82 ha) every day in Ontario, and we’re losing our best, most productive agricultural soils the fastest.

Threats to soil

An article in the December 4, 2020 issue of The Guardian describes the findings of a United Nations FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) report, which is the first report on the global state of biodiversity in soils (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/04/global-soils-underpin-life-but-future-looks-bleak-warns-un-report).  One disturbing finding is that since the Industrial Revolution, about 135 billion tonnes of soil has been lost from farmland.  One of the authors of the report, Richard Bardgett, Professor of Ecology at The University of Manchester, is quoted: “People should be worried…If things carry on as they are, the outlook is bleak, unquestionably. But I think it’s not too late to introduce measures now.”

Canada is not exempt from the problem of soil loss; each year Canada loses roughly 25,000 hectares of prime farmland to urban expansion alone. Between 1976 and 2016 Ontario lost 20 percent of its farmland.  Not only that, but draining wetlands, and cutting down forests to build housing developments and roads also contribute to soil degradation by intensifying the effects of flooding, drought and erosion, as these natural means of purifying and retaining water and providing defences from heavy winds and rainstorms are destroyed.

Building on soil isn’t the only way to destroy it; there are many other causes of soil loss.  Several of these are caused or exacerbated by poor farming practices, one major example of which is industrial farming; that is, large-scale, intensive production of animals and mono-culture crops.  Industrial farms are characterized by huge tracts of land, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, massive farm machinery, intensive tillage, and the harmful use of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals in animals (which end up in any manure from these animals that is used to amend the soil).

Industrial farming 

The poor farming practices inherent in industrial farming deplete soil by causing (either directly or indirectly) erosion, desertification, pollution, deforestation, reduction of biodiversity, salinization, loss of organic matter, acidification, compaction and climate change.

The 14 November 2020 issue Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/nov/24/farmland-inequality-is-rising-around-the-world-finds-report) describes the conclusion of a study based on 17 new research papers and an analysis of existing data and literature; namely, that since the 1980s, control over farmland has become increasingly concentrated, to the point where “1 percent of the world’s farms operate 70 percent of crop fields, ranches and orchards…Over the past four decades, the biggest shift from small to big was in the United States and Europe, where ownership is in fewer hands, and even individual farmers work under strict contracts for retailers, trading conglomerates and investment funds…these financial arrangements are now spreading to the developing world, which is accelerating the decline of soil quality, the overuse of water resources, and the pace of deforestation.”

The increasing industrialization of farming in Canada since the end of the Second World War, has resulted in fewer, but much larger farms.  In the last 70 years the total number of farms has decreased by over 70 percent, and the average farm size has tripled to 315 ha. In the course of enlarging farms, windbreaks such as trees and hedgerows were removed, which has resulted in increased erosion and soil depletion from wind and heavy rainfalls.

Desertification is mainly influenced by climate (lack of precipitation) and soil type, but it is exacerbated by poor land management; specifically, deforestation, over-grazing, excess tillage, and too much dependence on irrigation.  These farming practices alter the chemistry and hydrology of soil and cause the soil to lose its fertility and become barren.

Over-reliance on irrigation can lead to another cause of soil loss – salinization, when the water piped up from underground leaves deposits of salt and other minerals in the soil.

Soil that is good for farming has good tilth; in other words, the soil particles are stable, with high moisture content, and are well aerated with good drainage.  Good soil has a sufficient nutrient supply, few plant pathogens and insect pests, good drainage, a large population of beneficial organisms, low weed pressure, and no chemicals or toxins.

Intensive tillage, used in industrial farming to control weeds, damages the soil, disrupting its structure, and accelerates surface run-off and soil erosion.  Intensive tillage also removes leftover plant material, which normally cushions the force of pounding rain, resulting in soil compaction, which in turn results in poor water infiltration. It also contributes to carbon emissions by releasing the carbon in the soil into the atmosphere.  On the other hand, practices such as leaving crop residue in the ground, or planting cover crops that are not harvested, can put more carbon in the soil, as can using manure from naturally-raised livestock.

Monoculture, growing only one crop in a field, maximizes short-term profitability while minimizing cost. But there are drawbacks.  All that’s needed is a disease outbreak or insect invasion to demolish the entire crop.  Not only that, but planting the same crop in the same place year after year causes nutrient depletion of the soil, which then requires the use of chemical fertilizers. Use of these fertilizers has increased world-wide from 5 to 10 times what it was at the end of the Second World War.  These fertilizers contain acids and chemicals that destroy the micro-organisms in the soil, upset the pH of the soil, kill the beneficial microbial ecosystems in the soil, increase the threat of pests, and damage soil consistency.  Repeated use of chemical fertilizers causes the soil to become compacted, preventing rainwater from penetrating.  If used in excess, chemicals in the fertilizer end up leaching into the groundwater and our waterways, or become airborne, causing air pollution.  Furthermore, the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers used in industrial farming contribute to climate change by releasing nitrous oxide emissions, which are 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and also deplete the ozone layer.

Acid rain, the acidity of which is caused by emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, is mainly the result of burning fossil fuels (such as from industrial processes and gas-powered motor vehicles), but synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are a contributing factor.

Climate change is having a huge impact on soils and the functions that soil performs. Extreme weather events caused by climate change, as explained above, are degrading our soils.  This, in turn, pushes people to compensate for this soil degradation by increasing their use of unsustainable farming practices.

Then there’s the impact on soil of pesticide use.  Pesticides include chemical agents used to eliminate anything considered harmful to crop growth and maturation.  These include herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and bactericides.  Although these chemicals supposedly target a specific pest, they inflict collateral damage by killing or genetically altering the microbial life that makes soil healthy.

A Dutch study titled “Pesticide residues in European agricultural soils – A hidden reality unfolded” (by Vera Silva and five other researchers), was published in 2019, and is available on the Science Direct website (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969718343420).  This study of 317 European-Union agricultural topsoils, found that 83 percent of the soils contained one or more pesticide residues; of these residues, glyphosate and broad-spectrum fungicides were the compounds most frequently found, and at the highest concentrations.  Similar results would be expected in a study of Canadian agricultural soils, but a search on the Internet did not provide any results.  However, a study by Agriculture Canada tracking pesticide risk associated with agricultural activities from 1981 to 2011 (https://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/agriculture-and-the-environment/agricultural-practices/agriculture-and-water/pesticides-indicator/?id=1462401144426) found significant water pollution caused by pesticide run-off in various parts of the country, including the mixed-woods plain regions of Ontario, which covers all of southwestern Ontario, and parts of central and north-eastern Ontario.

In Ontario, there has been a 12 percent increase in overall pesticide use since 2003, mainly driven by glyphosate, which comprises 54 percent of the pesticides applied in Ontario.  In 2013-2014, approximately 33.6 tonnes of pesticides, specifically 31 tonnes of herbicides and about 3 tonnes of fungicide, were used on all crops surveyed by Farm & Food Care Ontario (http://www.farmfoodcareon.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/ONTARIO-Pesticide-Use-Survey-Final-2013.pdf).

What the 2017 OMAFRA report says about Ontario’s soil health

An OMAFRA report published in 2017 noted concerns about soil health in Ontario (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/landuse/soil-strategy.htm); namely, that “indicators suggest that soil health and conservation are not improving in Ontario. Key indicators of interest are: soil organic carbon, soil erosion risk and soil cover.” This is what the agency found:

  • 82 percent of Ontario’s agricultural soils are estimated to be losing more CO2to the atmosphere rather than increasing soil organic carbon.
  • 68 per cent of Ontario’s farmland is estimated to be in an unsustainable erosion risk category.
  • 53 per cent of Ontario’s cropland is estimated to have low or very low soil cover, covered less than 275 days or 75 per cent of the year. (end of quote)

The report concludes that “there is a need for more strategic and coordinated solutions to ensure everyone involved in soil management is working toward a common vision.”

In fact, the right agricultural practices can actually increase the ability of soils to sequester carbon.  Here are just some carbon-sequestering solutions promoted by OMAFRA and other agencies: windbreaks, conservation tillage, organic fertilizers, and the use of cover crops, crop rotation and inter-cropping (growing alternate rows or strips of crops).  In addition, these practices also manage soil erosion and run-off, naturally rebuild soil structure and fertility,  control diseases and pests, improve carbon sequestration, and suppress weeds.

There are some signs that farmers are following OMAFRA’s recommendations. In Ontario, according to statistics provided by OMAFRA, there was a 2 percent increase in no-till methods during the period between 2006 and 2011.  Conventional tillage decreased during the same period by about 7 percent, to 37 percent of land prepared for seeding in 2011. Also, the number of farmers using cover crops doubled from 12 percent to 25 percent between 2011 and 2016.

The pressure to develop farmland and to over-exploit it is exacerbated by the fact that farmers are poorly compensated for growing our food.  In fact, according to The Ontario Farmer’s June 2019 on-line issue

(https://www.ontariofarmer.com/business/farm-business/sharp-fall-for-2018-farm-income), the realized net farm income of agricultural producers in Canada fell more than 45 percent in 2018 to $3.9 billion. (This number is determined by subtracting from a farmer’s cash receipts all his operating expenses, depreciation and income in kind.) Assuming the number of farms in Ontario to be 49,600 (2016 census), that averages out to $78,630 per farm.  Factor in the unpredictable risks inherent in farming and the hard labour, and this income is certainly not in keeping with the importance of making Canada self-sufficient in food production.

Contrast this with the income earned by the agri-business corporations that sell farmers equipment and supplies, while capturing 98 percent of farmers’ revenues to the tune of $1.32 trillion out of $1.35 trillion earned by farmers globally.  The goal would seem to be to maximize yield and economic profit, with little heed for the long-term impacts.

Other threats to soil not connected with farming practices

Other causes of soil pollution are the use of road salt in winter, mixing of clean soil with contaminated soil, and weak regulations for reporting chemical spills and dealing with the effects.

In Ontario, 3-5 million tonnes of road salt are applied annually as an anti-icing method for winter road maintenance.  This practice, first started in the 1950s, has resulted in increasing problems with both soil and water salinity. While a certain amount of road salt use may be necessary, it is important to drastically reduce our usage.

A 2014 article in The Star “Toxic dirt dumped in Ontario’s prime farmland” by Moira Welsh

(https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/10/20/toxic_dirt_dumped_in_ontarios_prime_farmland.html) states that “Toronto’s construction boom is unearthing massive volumes of soil contaminated with dangerous heavy metals and petroleum, but it’s nearly impossible to know where the dirt is going because Ontario doesn’t track it.  Instead, thousands of tonnes of toxic earth taken to prime farmland from downtown condominium projects are usually discovered accidentally – by neighbours who report bad odours from soil that is supposed to be “clean”.”

Air pollution from chemical refineries, heavy industry, mines, and motor vehicles, also ends up in our soil, as precipitation binds with the pollutants in the air and ends up acidifying the soil. And then there’s soil contamination from hazardous wastes, sludges and spills, both on and off-site.

About 4,000 spills are reported each year in Ontario, totalling over several million litres of diesel, gasoline, and other chemicals. Officials estimate that the total number of unreported spills in Ontario could be as high as 20,000.

Gasoline, diesel, and heating oil comprise about 65 percent of the reported spills in Ontario. Other spills are from pipelines. According to the Transportation Safety Board, between 2008 and 2017, there were, on average, 133 occurrences reported each year for all of Canada, with a total spillage of 7,438,000 gallons (28,155,893 litres). Ontario averaged about 18 spills per year between 2007 and 2017. (See https://data.ontario.ca/dataset/environmental-occurrences-and-spills.)

The time to act is now!

Nature has bestowed on us so many life-nurturing gifts, including the incredibly complex, precious element that is soil.  But, as we have seen, people everywhere, including in our province (with its Open-for-Business government and willful demolition of environmental regulations), are destroying our soil, this basis for all life, this wondrous ecosystem in and of itself – by removing it, covering it with concrete, polluting it, and extracting all its nutrients.  By mistreating this irreplaceable resource, we are destroying one of the bonds that connects us all, and in so doing, putting the survival of our species and others at risk.

We are running out of time, with less than 10 years left to turn the situation around.  Our actions do make a difference – let’s do what we can to change this around!  Convey your concerns to others, and to your elected representatives; make sure your actions, including your purchases, encourage sustainable practices.  Work with and support reputable environmental agencies and organizations that share your goals.  In short, be part of the solution!