A 20-year study of soil health in PEI launched by the provincial Department of Agriculture in 1998 has confirmed what many Islanders have been saying for years: chemically-intensive, highly-mechanized monocultural farming methods are destroying the productive viability of our soil.
The findings from this definitive study represent an indictment of corporate farming methods and demand that a new path forward for agriculture is conceived and implemented as soon as possible.
This conclusion is obvious to anyone who understands how living organisms and microorganisms work together in the soil to create an intricate web of interdependent biological processes which break down organic matter to produce healthy soil. In turn, that healthy soil then allows plants to assimilate nutrients and minerals naturally, grow strong and resist diseases and pests, and produce healthy food.
Conversely, the results of this study showing steadily declining amounts of organic matter in our soil – notwithstanding much talk over the last couple of decades about all the measures that are being put into place to ensure that farmers are growing food sustainably – demonstrates unequivocally that the problem is systemic; it’s the monocultural, industrial farming methods which have been operating now for several decades that are destroying the complex biological processes needed to make soil healthy. This article takes a closer look at exactly how that happens.
It’s not necessary to understand how each and every aspect of these complex biological components interact to make healthy soil, plants and food – it’s enough to know that: [A] When there’s (1) a high percentage of Soil Organic Matter (SOM), coupled with (2 ) an absence of toxic chemicals, nature generally takes care of the rest and all will be well; and [B] that “living” soil rich in humus dies in direct proportion to the extent to which organic matter is allowed to decline, and the biological processes and living organisms that break down organic matter to produce humus are destroyed. According to the Minnesota Agricultural Extension Department, the nutrient holding capacity of soil drops as much as 15% with every O.5 percentage point drop in SOM. [To see how far the SOM percentages have dropped in PEI during the past 20 years for each area of the entire province, click on this colour-coded map ].
Agriculture Canada researcher Dr. Judith Nyiraneza, the key scientist who conducted the PEI soil study, identified three main causes for the continued decline of SOM in PEI over the past 20 years: (1) Increased erosion in heavy rain events; (2) A declining number of livestock operations, providing less manure for the soil; and (3) Frequent tillage.
Examining the underlying causes for each of these three key reasons reveals how they are all the inevitable consequences of corporate farming techniques employed over many years.
1. Increased erosion in heavy rain events
Why is there increased erosion in PEI with rain events? We have been led to believe it’s because of climate change, but even with heavier rains, erosion doesn’t normally happen if the soil is healthy and has good structure. The principal reason for worsening erosion lies with the decline in soil organic matter, which is initially caused by the other two reasons Dr. Nyiraneza provides.
With less organic matter in the soil, the soil becomes far more vulnerable to wind and water erosion simply because it lacks the organic matter and biological processes required to bind soil together preventing it from being easily blown and washed away. But there’s another reason which has to do with the chemically-intensive production methods used to grow food in PEI. The response Dr. Nyiraneza gave Matt Rainnie during a recent interview on CBC’s radio program Island Morning when he asked her if there is any connection between a decline in soil organic matter and the use of farm chemicals was both inaccurate and very disappointing.
Matt Rainnie: “Use of Pesticides, chemicals on farms…is that at all a factor in any of this?”
Judith Nyiraneza: “No, that is not related…that is not related at all to soil organic matter decline.”
Absolutely not true! Farm chemicals are directly-related to decreased organic matter in the soil which causes increased erosion, which, as Dr. Nyiraneza confirms, is one of the three main reasons for loss of organic matter. How? The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations offers a simple explanation in an excellent online resource titled “The importance of soil organic matter: key to drought-resistant soil and sustained food and production,” which outlines how soil organic matter lost from erosion is connected to chemically-intensive farming methods:
“In a healthy soil, there are a large number of bacteria and bacterial-feeding organisms. Where the soil has received heavy treatments of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, soil fungicides or fumigants that kill these organisms, the beneficial soil organisms may die…where there are no longer organisms to decompose soil organic matter and bind soil particles, the soil structure is damaged easily by rain, wind and sun. This can lead to rainwater runoff and soil erosion, removing the potential food for organisms” (p. 61).
The last sentence is important to show the cyclical and self-perpetuating trend that can happen with chemically-intensive farming, and explains in part why restoring the health of soil which has been severely depleted of organic matter and biological life can take a few years. If organic matter isn’t being broken down by organisms because they are destroyed with pesticides, it will take time for them to reestablish, since erosion and soil compaction happen more easily without as much organic material and biological life in the soil.
(2) A declining number of livestock operations, providing less manure for the soil
We all know that when livestock manure is spread on farm fields it adds organic matter to the soil, so you might say that the second reason for declining organic material is obvious and needs no further explanation. The real question we need to ask is why farming on PEI has been allowed to evolve in such a way as to remove such an obvious and essential component of soil health, leading to the catastrophe we are now facing?
In 2002 – the same year the mandatory three-year crop rotation legislation was enacted in an attempt to begin to arrest the decline of soil health resulting from too frequent crops of potatoes in the same fields and the excessive extraction of nutrients – there were 400 hog farmers on PEI. By 2010, just eight years later, that number had been reduced to 20, with an obvious, corresponding reduction in the amount of manure available to spread on fields to increase levels of organic matter.
The failure to recognize the importance of animal manure for soil health can be attributed to a corporate model of farming that began to be established in PEI in earnest under the Comprehensive Development Plan initiated by Liberal Premier Alex B. Campbell in 1969. That plan encouraged potato farmers to move away from mixed-farming operations and to “specialize” by focusing exclusively on growing potatoes year-after-year for Irving, to provide their Cavendish Farms plant in New Annan with a reliable and stable supply of potatoes to process into french fries.
This transition has proved disastrous for the health of our soil, the health of our ground water, and the health of our entire ecosystem. As one of the three key reasons listed by Dr. Nyiraneza for the continued and quite rapid decline of soil health, it also provides a powerful argument why we need to return to mixed farming operations and abandon the highly rationalized but biologically-unsound methods of monocultural, corporate farming.
It’s not like the provincial government is unaware of the need to move things in an entirely different direction….it’s just that it lacks the political will and courage to do what has to be done. A PEI Quality Monitoring Report published in 2012 discussed what the first 15 years of the SOM study had already discovered, and came to this very same conclusion:
“Results from this long-term study showed that current rotations systems are not sufficient to stop SOM decreasing in PEI unless animal manure or other carbon-rich wastes are regularly applied to the soil.”
Did evidence that “…current rotations systems are not sufficient to stop SOM decreasing in PEI …” lead to changes in the Agricultural Crop Rotation Act or the Regulations, given that “animal manure and other carbon-rich wastes” have clearly not been regularly applied to the soil since 2012, in light of further decline in the availability of livestock manure (see Farm Census Data, p. 2 for full data)? Unfortunately not. I pulled just the Farm Census data for Livestock in PEI for 2001 and 2016 to show clearly the change.
Which leads us to the third and final reason for declining organic matter in the soil.
3. Frequent Tillage
The third reason is clearly the most significant in explaining how corporate farming methods employed year-after-year in PEI have been destroying the soil. This model sees the field as a “factory floor” from which raw “commodities” are produced for corporate food processors…the goal has never been to maintain healthy soil, but to maximize both crop yields and farm revenue, which resulted in serious “overcropping” of those agricultural commodities such as potatoes, which rob the soil of nutrients and minerals and put almost no organic matter back, coupled with greater amounts of chemical fertilizers in an attempt to make up for the depletion of soil nutrients from over-extraction.
Given the growing seriousness of the situation, the provincial government finally enacted legislation in 2002 requiring farmers to employ a mandatory three-year crop rotation preventing farmers from growing regulated crops such as potatoes more than once every three years [the Act defined “regulated crop” as “….potatoes and other crops which are planted and harvested within one calendar year, excluding cereals and forages”].
This move was supposed to begin to repair our damaged and depleted agricultural land. But it hasn’t. And the results of the 20-year study on soil organic matter not only shows the extent to which that effort has failed, it confirms that the situation is gradually worsening. Why is this happening?
First of all, it is questionable whether the Crop Rotation legislation is even being fully enforced, and whether all potato farmers are indeed planting potatoes only one year in three. As Heather Hager states in her article, Soybeans in the Potato Rotation:
“Nitrate leaching into groundwater, and watersheds and soil degradation associated with intensive potato production, are critical concerns on Prince Edward Island, which is dependent on groundwater for its drinking water. In an attempt to address these issues, the Agricultural Crop Rotation Act was proclaimed in 2002 to legislate a mandatory three-year rotation for potatoes and other annual crops that require high nitrogen inputs. However, difficulties in enforcing the Act have meant that potatoes may still be grown in some fields every year or every other year.”
But there is another reason: both the crop rotation legislation and regulations are seriously flawed – especially the regulations – which allow farmers to continue to deplete the soil by substituting other crops for potatoes; crops that rely on the same chemical-intensive, monoculture practices as potatoes, rather than planting cereal and forage crops that would put organic matter back into the soil during the two years when potatoes are not allowed to be grown, which was obviously the whole point and intent of the legislation. Many farmers are now growing such cash crops, especially soybeans, which also deplete the soil of nutrients, and reintroduce only marginal amounts of organic matter, so it is not at all surprising to discover that the health of our soil has continued to decline since 2002.
When Robert Irving and Blaine MacPherson delivered their Presentation to the Standing Committee on Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Forestry on June 12, 2014, arguing that the moratorium on high-capacity wells for potato crop irrigation should be lifted, MacPherson, Vice-President of Cavendish Farms, made the following important observation:
“A three-year rotation really doesn’t mean very much….you can have a three-year rotation of soybeans and have very little organic matter in your soil. In fact, there’s people growing soybean for five years in a row and they’re still in compliance with the law and their organic matter is getting lower and lower every year. It’s a scavenger crop. It takes out and it doesn’t put back in the soil.” (p. 12)
Horst Bohner, Provincial Soybeans Specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs also speaks candidly about the downside of growing soybeans year-after-year in the article Last call for continuous soybean crops:
“Everybody knows that it’s a bad decision to grow continuous soybeans for the obvious reasons. It’s hard on the soil, hard on the soil structure, on organic matter, it removes a lot of nutrients and there’s a whole package of diseases and insects that build with continuous soybean production. Everyone knows they’re playing with fire, but it’s the issue of what might be the lesser of two evils.”
In 2001, the year before the Crop Rotation Act was passed, there were just 6,951 acres of soybeans planted in PEI. In 2016, that number had grown to 44,932 acres!
Why are Island Farmers growing so many soybeans if they are only further damaging the soil? For two reasons: (1) they are more lucrative than other crops, and (2) the provincial government lets them, by not making soybeans a “regulated crop” subject to the same three-year rotation cycle as potatoes.
Many farmers, perhaps most, are under tremendous pressure to survive, and if they are forced to take a break from growing potatoes in the same field for two years, it’s easy to understand why it’s hard for them to resist growing what will bring in the most money, even if that crop is nearly or just as damaging to the soil as potatoes. Heather Hagar quotes Potato and soybean farmer Robert MacDonald in her article, “Soybeans in the Potato Rotation,” who speaks candidly about the dilemma:
Robert MacDonald of Belle River, Prince Edward Island, grows 400 to 825 acres of potatoes on a three-year rotation. “The challenge for us has been to try and find a crop that pays the bills in years two and three between potatoes,” says MacDonald.
The crop he found is soybeans.
It’s also important to realize that Blaine MacPherson’s presentation to the provincial agricultural committee regarding the three-year crop rotation legislation which allows farmers to grow soybeans instead of potatoes, which essentially makes a mockery of that legislation, wasn’t meant to make a case for a longer rotation cycle of perhaps four or five years – on the contrary – his argument was that farmers could achieve the same results in two years by growing something sensible, like winter wheat, that actually puts organic matter back into the soil, rather than growing soybeans. That may be true; but given the tragic state of soil depletion we are currently experiencing in PEI, we definitely don’t want to go backwards by allowing anything less than a three-year rotation. In other words, we don’t need a “good” two-year rotation that’s equal to or better than a “bad” three-year rotation; we need at least a really “good” three-year rotation.
The obvious short-term answer given the urgent need to reverse the decline in organic matter in our soil – notwithstanding the challenges it may pose to some farmers – is to immediately take crops like soybeans off the list of “cereals/forage” crops in the Appendix to the Crop Rotation Act Regulations, and amend the definition of “regulated crops” in the Crop Rotation Act to include them.
If there is to be any integrity to the constant refrain we hear from Irving, the Potato Board, and the Provincial government that they are all sincerely committed to improving the health of the soil, then they need to step up and come to terms with the very alarming results of this 20-year soil organic matter study: it should be a major wake-up call to all Islanders. The time for studies and platitudes is long gone – we need immediate and radical action to reverse the long-standing trend of declining organic matter in our soil, and there is simply no viable way of doing that without beginning a transitioning process away from corporate agriculture.
What I find especially alarming is that such an important watershed moment for the future of our Island – the completion of a 20-year soil study with such dire results – where the very possibility of intervening before it’s too late to save our soil weighs in the balance – or the uncertainty of whether it’s still even possible to implement new policies in time to ensure a transition to sustainable food and farming future for our children – wasn’t even mentioned in the Guardian. There was just a short CBC website article titled “3 Reasons PEI Soil is in Decline,” and a 10 minute interview with the authors of the study on Island Morning. That’s truly scandalous in my opinion, and proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that our local media is indeed failing us. Both the CBC and the Guardian should have solicited comments from other political parties, from the NFU, from organic growers, etc., undertook some independent investigation of the issue, or even organized a public forum to raise awareness about this situation.
Before concluding this summary overview of some of the connections between declining soil organic matter and corporate agriculture, it must also be pointed out that the cry from the Potato Board and Irving for more irrigation for potatoes, and more high-capacity wells and holding ponds using up more and more ground water, is directly related to the diminishing capacity of our soil to retain water due to the decline in organic matter.
Barry Thompson, with the department of agriculture emphasized this alarming consequence resulting from low soil organic matter, saying, “What we’re doing is not only are we kind of having a drop in organic matter, we’re actually losing our water-holding capacity.” Not only are we losing more and more organic matter from erosion; as that is allowed to continue to happen, we are further creating the conditions for more and worsening erosion!
As organic matter continues to decrease in PEI, the capacity of the soil to retain water and provide a moist environment for earthworms and other organisms in the topsoil – which are essential to maintaining porous, healthy soils – also diminishes. This leads to increased soil compaction, which then leads to even fewer earthworms because earthworms hate compacted soil, which leads to even less porous topsoil, less water retention, more run-off, and an even further loss of organic matter from fewer or no earthworms since the castings from earthworms are much higher in organic matter than the soil that passes through those earthworms:
“Casts produced by anecic earthworms have a higher proportion of organic matter, especially large particles of plant material, and a larger proportion of small mineral components than in the surrounding soil.” (p. 81)
“Earthworm casts are also more strongly aggregated (bound together) than the surrounding soil as a result of the mixing of organic matter and soil mineral material, as well as the intestinal mucus of the worm. Thus, the living part of the soil is responsible for keeping air and water available, providing plant nutrients, breaking down pollutants and maintaining the soil structure.” (p. 6)
More compaction, fewer earthworms and other living microorganisms perpetuates a cyclical pattern of more erosion, causing further loss of organic matter, even fewer living organisms which need organic matter to feed, which creates even more erosion….which becomes a perpetually worsening self-feeding cycle of decline, leading eventually to complete degradation of the soil, making it incapable of producing crops.
Irving’s answer to the water problem in Island soils is to put more water on crops, taken from ground water. But this is only addressing the symptom and not the core problem, and represents an extremely self-serving and short-sighted effort by Irving to maintain the same or higher level of potato production for his french fry plant. Irving grows or purchases over 46,000 acres of potatoes annually (52% of all potatoes grown) and has no interest in seeing that amount decrease while soils are restored to health. If unhealthy soils won’t retain water, “well just put more water on them” is his answer….but there’s no way that scenario is sustainable for the long-term, given the rapidly declining health of our soil and the limited and vulnerable state of our fresh ground water.
Unless water retention is improved for the long-term, with measures designed to increase SOM, the already rapid decline of soil health will continue and likely accelerate. We desperately need government action and we need it immediately. Unfortunately, according to Barry Thompson with the PEI Department of Agriculture, in an answer he provided Matt Rainnie during his Island Morning CBC interview, no such change is being contemplated:
Matt Rainnie: “Do you see any specific new rules of regulations coming out of this? [the alarming results of declining SOM from the 20 year study]”
Barry Thompson: “Oh, I don’t see any new rules or regulations by any means. ”
That’s completely unacceptable. At a minimum, two immediate actions are required for the short-term: (1) soybeans and other crops that don’t substantially restore organic matter should not be allowed in either of the two years in the three-year rotation cycle with potatoes; and (2) fall ploughing should be banned outright.
And work must begin immediately on developing long-term strategies with programs and projects designed to transition farmers from using unsustainable corporate farming techniques to sustainable organic farming practices, where mixed-farms, and greater crop diversity with longer rotation cycles once again become the norm on our Island.
Many farmers, especially potato farmers, will continue to exploit the soil – driven as they are by an instinct to survive in the highly competitive corporate world of agri-business – and they’ll do it by steadily taking more from the soil than they can afford to put back, despite the fact that they sincerely don’t want to farm that way. But that’s exactly what we can expect to happen unless, and until such time as, our provincial government exercises some real leadership and insists on bringing about significant systemic changes within Island agriculture, and makes that happen by offering substantial help to potato farmers to do what must be done to save our soil.
I want to end with two quotes from the FAO study on soil organic matter referenced earlier. And I would strongly encourage anyone who wants a better understanding of the interconnected nature of soil health and food production to read this amazing resource. It offers a comprehensive treatment of the issue, but explains the complex processes and dynamics in plain English, with a minimum of technical jargon:
“Farmers can take many actions to maintain, improve and rebuild their soils, especially soils that have been under cultivation for a long time. A key to soil restoration is to maximize the retention and recycling of organic matter and plant nutrients, and to minimize the losses of these soil components caused by leaching, runoff and erosion. However, rebuilding soil quality and health through appropriate farming practices may take several years, especially in dryland areas where limited moisture reduces biomass production and soil biological activity. Thus, the challenge is to identify soil management practices that promote soil organic matter formation and moisture retention and ensure productivity and profitability for farmers in the short term.” (p. 12)
“Increased concern about the environmental and economic impacts of conventional crop production has stimulated interest in alternative systems. Central to such systems is the need to promote and maintain soil biological processes and minimize fossil fuel inputs in the form of fertilizers, pesticides and mechanical cultivation. All activities aimed at the increase of organic matter in the soil help in creating a new equilibrium in the agro-ecosystem” (p. 33).
Enough pretending things aren’t really that bad with our soil…. let’s finally do something about this critical situation before it’s too late!
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