Scientists studying how to make poorer soils perform better

The work is in response to a growing problem of the loss of prime farmland to urbanization

As Canada steadily loses top-quality farmland to urban sprawl, Agriculture Canada scientists are studying ways to make poorer soils perform better in co-operation with foreign researchers.

Brian Gray, assistant deputy minister for science and technology, told the Senate agriculture committee the work will help feed an expected global population of 9.5 billion in 2050.

“We’re looking at how to maximize our productivity on these less productive lands and doing so in a manner that is not harmful to the environment,” Gray said. Increasing productivity of all land is one of four strategic objectives of the department’s researchers.

The work is being conducted in concert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the chief scientists of the Agriculture Departments of the G20 countries.

“We’re identifying the biggest threats and opportunities facing the G20 countries in agriculture,” he said. “We look not so much at pooling money and putting it in one basket but collaborating on research where we’re twinning funding. We’re already working on this. We want to align our scientists with their scientists, whether in government or academia.”

A common theme in the committee’s study of farmland ownership is the loss of the Class 1, 2 and 3 soils to urbanization and the addition of more Class 5 and 6 soils to the faming base.

Allan Howard, manager of the Agroclimate, Geomatics and Earth Observation Division, said the department’s land use and soils data “indicates that farmland is being lost to urban expansion in Canada every year, with much of this occurring in Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia, where the majority of Canada’s best farmland is found.”

Meanwhile land coming into agriculture tends to be Class 4 and 5.

The department is looking at whether climate change is making some land of use to agriculture, he said. Research will be conducted on what the land across the country might be like by mid-century.

“There is certainly land coming into production that was not farmed 20 or 30 years ago,” he said.

One example is grapes for wine production, where the Okanagan Valley has become a major production area, leading to the search for new places to grow the crops. But just putting land into production won’t necessarily make it productive.

“The questions we have to ask are, how much land is going to go from marginal and improved to be Class 1, 2 or 3?” he said. “How much of the unsuitable land will become marginal land? How much of our prime land is going to lose productivity as a result of climate change? It may not be strictly because of things like drought. It could be extreme heat stress, pests or a number of things; so there are a number of questions we need to be aware of and still need to answer. I would say we’re at the very early stages.”

Research scientist Ted Huffman said monitoring land use changes is difficult because it happens at “isolated locations here and there across the country.”

New information systems show about 3,000 hectares of farmland per year being urbanized between 1990 and 2010, almost half of it in Ontario. At the same time, about 2,000 hectares of forest are converted to agricultural use across the country each year.

“The major contributor there is Alberta, 800 to about 900 hectares per year, followed by Quebec at about 400 hectares per year, Saskatchewan, 500 hectares per year,” he said.

Natural Resources Canada is developing a federal geospatial platform to use satellite data on all land uses in Canada, he said. This could assist the federal and provincial governments in establishing a standard land use policies and designations.

Gray said the department is working to keep pace with new farming technology advances, such as precision farming, which are creating an increased demand for evidence-based decision-making at finer and finer scales, down to subfield levels beyond what is possible from the current soils database.

“In order to address this need, we have initiated discussions with the provinces, universities and private sectors about a common integrated approach to increase the resolution of our soils data,” he said.

His department is currently conducting research to develop nationally consistent farm field-level soil data using a new approach called predictive soil mapping. It should produce more detailed soil maps at significantly reduced costs over the traditional field survey-based approach. Soil data only informs about the suitability of land for cropping purposes, not what is currently happening on the land base.

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