Canada's failure to protect farm and forest soil from climate change, urbanization and pollution threatens the country's food security and environment, a federal committee has warned.

On Thursday, the Senate committee on agriculture and forestry released a strongly-worded report calling on the government to take more aggressive action to protect the country's soil. Without more protection, Canada risks losing the soils underpinning the nation's farms, thus kneecapping its ability to meet climate and environmental goals, the committee warned.

"It calls attention to what Canada — and the world — depends on: food, fuel and fiber," said Laura Van Eerd, a professor at the University of Guelph and soil expert. As the basis to produce these resources, soil "is a valuable resource and the Senate report calls for action — quickly."

Healthy soil is essential to food production. In addition to being a major carbon sink, good soil can help regulate the climate and prevent floods. It is also important for key ecological processes such as nutrient cycling and water purification. However, unlike Australia and other countries, Canada does not have a national strategy to preserve its soils or track soil health countrywide.

"Soil is often overlooked, yet it’s essential to all life. It grows our food and purifies our air and water," said Sen. Rob Black, the committee chair, in a statement. "We must act now to preserve this valuable national resource, which is increasingly susceptible to climate change, floods, droughts, wildfires and the loss of farmlands."

Compiled from testimonies by 153 witnesses and over 60 briefs from farmers, foresters, researchers, industry groups and government, the report lays out 25 recommendations for how the federal government can better protect — and bolster — the country's soils.

They include designating soil as a national strategic asset; developing a national soil protection strategy, which would include encouraging provinces and municipalities to protect farmland under threat from urbanization; developing a system to help farmers and foresters sell carbon credits if they bolster the health of their soils; and better supporting Indigenous-led efforts to protect their soils.

“We learned that Indigenous Peoples have been left out of soil science and agricultural education, and that Indigenous farmers still face barriers when trying to access funding programs," said Sen. Marty Klyne in a statement. "It is crucial that we close these gaps and incorporate Indigenous knowledge into our soil health practices.”

The committee also recommended that Canada develop crop insurance and tax credits to incentivize farmers to protect their soils. Most of Canada's existing agricultural subsidies prioritize farming practices that rely on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which can both degrade soil health.

Only 7.2 per cent of Canada's land mass is arable, with high-quality soils that can support produce even rarer still. So why haven't governments taken more significant steps to protect those lands? #climatechange #agriculture #canpoli

The federal government is considering encouraging soil-promoting farming practices through a suite of policies designed to motivate farmers, including its contentious 2021 fertilizer emissions reduction policy. The excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers results in emissions of nitrous oxide — a potent greenhouse gas — and reduces soils' organic matter and microbial activity.

In B.C., a provincial legislative committee recommended last year that the government embrace a suite of policies to help farmers better promote soil health. Those recommendations include creating more programs such as the Greenbelt Foundation's soil-testing initiative to help farmers identify how best to promote soil health.

Van Eerd emphasized that protecting Canada's agricultural soils from urban development is also vital.

"It's not just what happens with the farmer," she said. "It's also protecting farmland from other uses [like] development."

Keeping farmland from being repurposed by developers is a countrywide problem. Unlike the U.S. and many other countries, Canada doesn't have a national plan to protect farmland. B.C. and Quebec have the most comprehensive protections, followed by a patchwork of rules in Ontario. None of the other provinces or territories have strong laws to protect their farmland.

Only about 7.2 per cent of Canada's land mass is arable, according to Statistics Canada. High-quality soils essential for produce are even more rare and concentrated along the St. Lawrence River in southern Ontario and B.C.'s Lower Mainland. These regions are under intense pressure from developers who want land for housing and industrial uses.

These fields, pastures and orchards are poised to become even more important in decades to come. About two-thirds of all produce consumed in Canada is imported. Most of it comes from the southeastern and southwestern U.S. Both regions have been hard hit in recent years by extreme weather such as droughts or hurricanes, problems the climate crisis is expected to worsen.

For Van Eerd, the Senate report is an important reminder for Canadians: "The basis of life is the soil.”