Think-tank study shows ag soils improved

“Substantial progress” has been made in the sustainability of Canada’s farming practices over the past 20 years, judging by the quality of its cropland’s soils compared to their productivity, according to a new think-tank report.

The Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy on Wednesday released a study, The Environmental State of Canada: 30 Years of Environmental Progress, in which its authors contend Canada is “well on the way toward environmental sustainability.”

“Over the past 30 years, Canada’s air and water have become cleaner, ecosystems and timberlands have been preserved, and soils that feed not only Canadians but also many others around the world have been protected,” the study’s authors said in a release.

While granting that there’s “still more that can be done,” the authors note their markers for progress advanced while Canada’s population and economy have both grown significantly.

On the issue of soil quality, study authors Kenneth Green and Ben Eisen point to the “soil organic carbon change indicator” as a measurement tool indicating soil health.

“According to this indicator, Canadian soil quality has improved dramatically in recent years,” they wrote. “Whereas in the early 1980s, Canada experienced a significant annual net loss in soil organic carbon, by the early 2000s, Canada enjoyed large annual net gains.”

The study also notes the extent to which the federal government considers Canada’s farmland to be at risk of wind, soil and tillage erosion, and finds “Canada has experienced a significant improvement according to these three indicators.”

The percentage of cropland Ottawa has designated as being at “very low risk” of wind erosion, the lowest possible designation, was 86 per cent in 2001, up from 72 per cent in 1981, the study noted.

“Similarly, the percentage of cropland deemed to be at very low risk of tillage erosion increased by over 30 per cent during this period.”

“Ensuring sustainability”

Furthermore, Green and Eisen wrote, “farm productivity, overall crop quality and variety, and total cash income from agriculture and agricultural exports have all risen in recent decades, partially due to the improvements in soil quality.”

Such growth in productivity in light of improved soil quality suggests “Canadian agricultural practices have become markedly more productive and sustainable over the course of the past 20 years,” they wrote.

And, they added, “although Canada is a highly urbanized country, agriculture remains a significant component of the economy and ensuring its sustainability is an important element of environmental policy.”

Looking at ecosystem conservation, Green and Eisen noted that in 1989, three per cent of Canada’s land area was protected by legislation; by 2003, they said, that number rose to 8.4 per cent.

Some provinces have been “particularly aggressive” in expanding their protected areas, the authors wrote, citing Manitoba, British Columbia and Nova Scotia are among those which have significantly expanded protected land area since the late 1980s.

The policy centre, which focuses on research supporting economic growth, also raises the contentious issue of bulk fresh water exports to the U.S. and Mexico in this study.

“A relatively modest withdrawal of freshwater resources from (Canada’s) far north may produce net revenue that is equivalent to 20 per cent of Manitoba’s provincial budget,” Green and Eisen wrote.

Proposing government oversight and regulation as a way to limit excessive exports, the authors write that “while reckless exploitation of Canada’s freshwater resources without regard for future generations would be foolish, a stance of strict opposition to all large-scale water exports to the United States and Mexico seems equally misguided.”

Eisen, currently a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre, has authored policy columns appearing in several Canadian newspapers. Green, a member of the centre’s advisory board, is a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, whose other fellows and scholars include U.S. politician Newt Gingrich, former World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, historian Lynne Cheney and author David Frum.


Stories from our other publications