Today I released my report on the Environmental Commissioner’s Soil-Carbon Roundtable, entitled “Investing in Soils for a Sustainable Future”, held last year in Guelph. (Click for more information, to watch presentations or to download the report.) It is an intriguing document because it contains a good measure of both hope and of frustration.
Hope arises from its revelation of broad areas of consensus among experts and stakeholders, confirming our common awareness of the vital importance of soil organic matter (SOM) — not only to our food supply, but to our water, our air, our climate, our biodiversity, and our economy. (see “The Roots of Sustainability: Engaging the Soil Carbon Solution” in my 2011 Annual Report.)
Frustration arises, however, from the report’s lack of consensus on how to ensure that SOM levels rise and then stay high. We run the risk, too common in Ontario these days, of simply letting the status quo continue, while failing to take bold action.
Other jurisdictions have recognized the fundamental connections between sustainable agriculture and food security, soil health and a healthy environment, and soil-carbon levels and climate change. In 2011, Australia introduced the Carbon Farming Initiative, which caps carbon emissions by industry, exempts agriculture from the caps, and then allows farmers to sell the carbon credits they acquire when they adopt management measures that sequester carbon, including those that build SOM.
Here in Canada, Alberta has an intensity-based cap on carbon emissions for its largest businesses – a cap that is reduced each year, therefore requiring constant improvement. One of the compliance options for these businesses is to invest in carbon offsets, which include no-till agriculture, a management practice that raises SOM levels in the dry prairie soils.
Ontario has its own unique soils, climate, and ecology, so we need our own made-in-Ontario soil-carbon policies and protocols. We must get past the arguments about what management practices and incentive systems work best and just get going on this vitally important investment strategy. We must quickly create (or adapt other jurisdictions’) measurement and incentive tools, protocols, and programs, so that we can measure and monitor our progress. There are many innovative examples upon which to draw, so let’s get started.
Our farmers feed us, but they also have the ability to help us prepare for the future. Their work can mitigate climate change, build ecological resilience, sustain our natural environment, protect our water supplies, guard our biodiversity, and generally enhance our quality of life. However, to do all this they need our help. Like any investment, change always involves some level of cost and of risk. Since we will all benefit from these investments in soil, the costs and the risks should be shared, not borne by farmers alone.