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Tillage questions posed for Manitoba

David Lobb with the University of Manitoba is researching the cost of soil degradation

What does soil degradation cost you?

Dr. David Lobb hopes the answer to that question will get producers looking more closely at what’s happening under their feet.

The University of Manitoba researcher spoke Nov. 15 in Dauphin at the “Soil Health and Your Bottom Line” workshop, hosted by the Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve.

Lobb estimates that soil degradation cost Canadians $40 billion to $60 billion between 1971 and 2011.

“I’ve put that number out there as a poke in the eye of the government people who think the job is done,” Lobb said.

Soil awareness and no till were in the limelight in the ’80s and ’90s, sparked by finding a 1984 Senate report, which warned a significant portion of agricultural lands would be unproductive within a century if degradation continued unchecked. In 1995, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada called soil degradation, “the most serious crisis facing the agricultural industry in the long term,” in its report, The Health of Our Soils: Towards sustainable agriculture in Canada.

Less attention

That interest has since waned, according to soil scientists still ringing the alarm, including Lobb.

Lobb’s latest research drew on existing yield data showing the impact of soil degradation, data on erosion, salinity and other soil health issues from 1971 to 2011 and historical crop yields and prices. From this he estimated how much soil degradation has actually cost farmers.

In 1971, Lobb estimated 63.2 per cent of Canadian cropland was low eroding, losing about 5.9 tonnes of soil per hectare per year. The other 36.8 per cent was considered high eroding and lost 24 tonnes of soil in the same area and time frame. The result was a 0.5 per cent yield loss in low-eroding soil and a 17 per cent loss in high-eroding soil, costing farmers about $0.96 billion every year, in 2016 dollars.

By 2011, that cost had risen to $3.1 billion per year, despite a marked decrease in the amount of at-risk soil.

The majority of modern soils, 90.5 per cent, were considered low erosion as of 2011 and lost only 3.5 tonnes of soil per hectare per year. The 9.5 per cent high-risk soils lost 22.7 tonnes of soil per hectare per year, another decrease.

The difference, according to Lobb, is twofold. While Canada’s erosion situation improved over 30 years, crop and input prices also shot up, multiplying the financial loss any time yield declined because of soil, he said.

More importantly, he added, soil degradation is cumulative; something he says is a key point that has been largely ignored in the soil health discussion so far.

Despite fewer acres being hit with high erosion and less soil being lost overall, Lobb’s study still estimates low-risk acres lost five per cent of yield, compared to just 0.5 per cent 30 years earlier. In high-erosion soils, the difference was more stark, with a 60 per cent yield loss.

Lobb put cumulative soil degradation cost at $20 billion to $30 billion before 1971, compared to $40 billion to $60 billion over the next three decades.

Lobb’s study is national, but work has also begun to localize the data. The University of Guelph, along with Lobb and the Soil Conservation Council of Canada, hopes to calculate soil degradation cost for difference ecozones over the next year.

Introducing themselves

The day-long event also kicked off the Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve Soil Health Committee.

The committee is an offshoot of the Riding Mountain Bio­sphere Reserve, a non-profit focused on sustainability and protection in Riding Mountain National Park, as well as 12 surrounding municipalities and four First Nations.

The first meeting of the Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve Soil Health Committee comes to order Nov. 15.
photo: Alexis Stockford

The board typically tackles community outreach, invasive species, bovine tuberculosis and other conservation issues, but 2017 will be its first time forming a committee specific to soil health.

Jim Irwin, Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve chair, said the committee will help producers access soil health knowledge, share information between themselves and spread it to the wider community within the biosphere.

“Soil is our absolute most important resource that we have and pursuing the soil health focus, it covers all the mandates,” he said.

The 10-year Man and the Biosphere (MAB) framework outlines sustainability strategies in all biospheres designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organ­ization (UNESCO).

“We’re talking about sustainable agriculture,” Irwin said. “We’re talking about improving the prosperity and posterity of our communities throughout the biosphere reserve.”

The committee will be getting help from Manitoba’s soil health experts. Fifty-six researchers, government representatives, ecologists, farmers and conservation staff have signed on with a voluntary advisory network, which Irwin says will form a hub of knowledge for the committee to draw from.

“The advisory council gives us the knowledge base,” he said. “It’s such a complex subject that… we want to make sure that this is reliable information. We don’t want to be giving people false hopes.”

A total 24 members have joined the soil health committee so far.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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