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AGFO - Standing Committee

Agriculture and Forestry



OTTAWA, Thursday, December 7, 2023

The Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry met with videoconference this day at 9:01 a.m. [ET] to examine and report on the status of soil health in Canada.

Senator Paula Simons (deputy chair) in the chair.


The Deputy Chair: Good morning, honourable senators. Welcome to the committee members and witnesses, both those here in the room and those attending online, as well as everyone watching the meeting on the internet.


My name is Paula Simons. I’m a senator from Alberta, Treaty 6 territory, and I’m the deputy chair of this committee. Today, the committee is meeting on its study to examine and report on the status of soil health in Canada.

Before we hear from the witnesses, I would like to start by having the senators around the table to introduce themselves.

Senator Wells: Good morning, panel. My name is David Wells. I’m from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Senator Klyne: Good morning and welcome. Marty Klyne, a senator from Saskatchewan, Treaty 4 territory.

Senator Jaffer: Good morning and welcome. I’m Mobina Jaffer, and I’m from British Columbia.

Senator Cotter: Good morning. Welcome. My name is Brent Cotter. I’m a senator from Saskatchewan.

The Deputy Chair: Should any technical challenges arise, particularly with regard to interpretation, please signal to the chair or the clerk, and we will work to resolve the issue.

For our first panel, via video conference, we welcome, from Agriculture in the Classroom, Mathieu Rouleau, Executive Director; from 4-H Canada, Hugh Maynard, Interim Chief Executive Officer, and Emmett Sawyer, Member, who are here with us in the room; from Farm & Food Care Ontario, we welcome Kelly Daynard, Executive Director; and from Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan, Clinton Monchuk, Executive Director.

I invite you to make your presentations. You will each have five minutes for your presentations. I will signal that your time is running out by raising one hand when you have one minute left, and I will raise both hands when your time is up. The floor is now yours, Mr. Rouleau.

Mathieu Rouleau, Executive Director, Agriculture in the Classroom: Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to speak about soil health and Agriculture in the Classroom.

First, please let me introduce myself. I am a proud third-generation farmer who grew up on a dairy, maple syrup and cash crop farm in southwestern Quebec. I am passionate about agriculture education, which led me to cofound Ecole-o Champ, an agriculture education organization in Quebec, and recently take on the leadership role of Agriculture in the Classroom Canada.

Today, it is my pleasure to be here on behalf of the Agriculture in the Classroom collective across Canada. Our mission is to cultivate a meaningful connection to agriculture and food for students and educators. Agriculture in the Classroom Canada is a national organization that creates programs and resources to support our member organizations in each of the 10 provinces. The provinces are the boots on the ground that deliver our programs and resources to teachers to get agriculture education into classrooms across Canada.

Educating young people about where their food comes from and the importance of agriculture is more important than ever. Climate change, food security and labour shortages are just some of the pressing issues that are having a significant impact on our industry. It is critical that we educate the leaders of tomorrow who are in classrooms today so that they can be part of the solution for a sustainable future. Our future workforce and the health of the industry depend upon it.

Each year, the Agriculture in the Classroom collective creates over 2 million student experiences through programs and resources, making valuable connections to agriculture and the agri-food sector. While Agriculture in the Classroom Canada was established in 2016, some of our member organizations have been working on agriculture education for up to 35 years.

Agriculture in the Classroom Canada proudly supports our provincial partners by creating national programs, sharing information and resources, and being part of a national voice for agriculture education. Collectively, we focus on the ABCs: providing accurate, balanced and current curriculum-linked resources, programs and initiatives that are based on science. Our Canadian resource library offers educators hundreds of resources in French and English that are linked to provincial curriculum outcomes. That gives teachers unlimited access to hundreds of free educational resources and activities that can be filtered by province, topic, subject area and more to make it easy and interactive for teachers.

Many of those resources are focused on or feature soil health. That includes agriculture flipbooks and videos, which are animated to show students how soil is formed. The book Alex’s First Seed shows how worms play an important role in maintaining healthy soil. We have multiple lesson plans centred on soil health, including the hands-on All About Soil, which teaches students about characteristics and applications of soil and then has them plant a garden right in their classroom to observe how plants grow. We also offer mini unit plans with a deeper focus on soil properties and how human activities can affect soil’s ecological functions. Those are just some of the many resources we have developed that address soil health.

That is also the purpose of our partnership with the Canadian Cattle Association. Through developing games, students learn how to manage land with cattle and the ecosystem to make healthy wildlife flourish.

Once again, our mission at Agriculture in the Classroom across Canada is to create meaningful connections in agriculture and food with educators and students. As you’ve heard, soil health is one of the very important components of ongoing education, and it is critical for us to continue to invest. We thank you for your time.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you very much.

Emmett Sawyer, Member, 4-H Canada: Good morning, honourable senators. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today.

I grew up on my family’s grain and cattle farm, which has been in operation since 1903. It is an hour northeast of Calgary. I was a 4-H member for nine years, where I raised a market beef steer. I am a passionate “agvocate” for all things Canadian agriculture, including advocating for the importance of our soils here in Canada.

Not that long ago, Canadian farmers experienced disastrous droughts. Clouds of dust from soil blowing away, a reduction in the productivity of our soil and a huge loss in organic matter made farming almost impossible. The future looked very bleak on the Prairies.

If we fast forward to 2023, it’s a different story. Using modern-day farming practices and crop-protection products, we have increased our yields and organic matter in the soil, and our soil stays within the fields that we sow. We are taking care of the most vital six inches of soil that our country has to offer, which is the lifeblood of the agriculture industry.

But farmers and ranchers have been faced with a new challenge: climate change. How can we contribute to not only reducing our environmental impact but use soil as a tool to reduce climate change, while also increasing sustainability? One way we can do that is by using the capacity of our soils to sequester carbon using modern farming practices. Through the adoption of zero tillage, farms have been able to increase their carbon sequestration by allowing them to reduce the disturbance of their soils. Ranchers have been able to do it by allowing their animals to graze on our grasslands, creating a massive carbon sink.

To increase the health of the soil on our farm, we have begun to spread manure on a variety of quarters each year. We work alongside our agronomist to soil test every single field and create a unique fertilizer blend per field using the 4R stewardship model: the right source at the right rate at the right time at the right place. Manure increases our organic matter, the population of beneficial organisms and the soil’s water retention, while decreasing the usage of synthetic fertilizer, which has increased our sustainability and reduced our carbon footprint.

In some areas, the health and the survival of our productive farmland is under attack. Large cities across Canada are located on some of the best and most productive farmland that we have here in Canada, yet every day, another field is being sold and used for large warehouses and urban development. This is something we must be careful of, as once it’s been developed, it will never again be productive farmland. It’s heartbreaking to witness because, as Canadian farmers, we know that we produce some of the safest and most sustainable food on the planet, yet we must also be aware that if we want to be sustainable and continue to help reduce our environmental impact, we must protect our farmland.

As youth, we have been tasked with the responsibility of reducing climate change and are looked to to provide solutions to this important issue. One way in which 4-H has contributed to this conversation has been by creating an outreach program called Dig into Soil, one of six outreach initiatives offered by 4‑H Canada. This program provides youth with the chance to discover how healthy soils contribute to addressing climate change while empowering them to be champions of soil conservation within their own communities. This allows youth to learn to do by doing and begin their first steps in learning why soil can help solve a few of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

This program has been a huge success, with participants saying they learned something new about how climate change relates to soils and sustainable agriculture. When we talk about climate change, it is important to have programs like these because they shine a bright light on the future of youth and the importance of creating spaces where our youth can learn and think critically about their role in being champions of soil conservation.

I know that as Canadian farmers, we produce some of the safest and most sustainable food on the market. A key driver in this has been our ability to create healthier soils and find ways to become more sustainable. As climate change continues to become a more global conversation, countries will look to us as leaders in the agriculture industry to lead the way in conversations surrounding soil health and finding new ways to use it as a tool to promote sustainability.

As farmers, we are Mother Nature’s first environmentalists, and it’s up to us to try to encourage sustainable agriculture. On my family’s farm, being environmentally sustainable is simply part of the job we do each and every day, and it all starts with the health of the soil. Thank you.

The Deputy Chair: The perfect five minutes. Thank you very much.

Kelly Daynard, Executive Director, Farm & Food Care Ontario: Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to be here today.

Primarily funded by farmers, farm organizations and agri‑businesses, Farm & Food Care Ontario is a registered Canadian charity with a mandate to provide credible information on food and farming in Canada. My focus, of course, is in Ontario. We also work closely with our sister group in Saskatchewan, represented here today by Clinton Monchuk, its executive director, and our sister group in Prince Edward Island on a variety of national projects all focused on connecting consumers with their food.

It’s important to note that our mandate does not include work in Canadian classrooms. When our resources lend themselves to use by educators, we rely on the expertise of our colleagues, like Mathieu at Agriculture in the Classroom Canada, to provide the accompanying materials that are curriculum-based and relevant in classrooms across Canada.

I was raised on a grain farm near Guelph, Ontario, and my farmer parents always emphasized to me the importance of good soil health. They’ve dedicated their lives to improving conditions on our small family farm. But I have realized, through my work with consumers, that soil — and its critical importance to everyone — is never top of mind to non-farming Canadians.

Annually, we host bus tours for food influencers in the Toronto and Ottawa areas. We take them out to farms and food processing facilities so that they’re better able to answer the questions of their customers and their audiences. On a bus tour a few years ago, a farmer was speaking to my guests about the challenges related to his farm’s soil type. One guest on the bus raised her hand to ask, “If farmers don’t like their soil type, why don’t they just change it?” And that led to a fascinating conversation about soil types, soil health and the challenges farmers face when growing crops in a variety of soil conditions. After all, for some of my guests living in downtown Toronto or Ottawa, changing their soil type might mean buying a new bag of premium mix for their planter boxes. When farmers, like my friend Clinton, are faced with growing food in challenging soil conditions on a 1,000-acre farm — or even 100 acres — it’s a very different story.

That has led Farm & Food Care to increasingly focus on the theme of soil health in many of its outreach efforts. Our flagship publication, which was just handed out to you today, is actually called The Real Dirt on Farming. Since 2006, we have distributed about 5 million copies of that booklet across Canada. I will get the French edition to you very soon; it’s at the printer’s on its way here. Senator Black had asked me to bring copies of those. This booklet answers consumers’ questions about food and farming, including about the 10 main soil orders in Canada, why organic matter is so important and the difference between soil and dirt. It also explains why farmers would regularly sample their soils and use techniques like crop rotation and zero tillage practices to improve their soil’s structure and nutrient content.

Working with many of our members and partners like the Grain Farmers of Ontario and the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, to name just two, we have incorporated the topic of soil health into videos filmed for our virtual reality farm website,, which is a site that reaches about a million visitors per year touring farms from the comfort of their computers.

This past September, building on our prior work, we took a busload of Toronto food influencer guests to the University of Guelph’s Soil Health Interpretive Centre. This facility envisions science-based sustainable soil management practices as becoming the norm across the agricultural landscape. While there, our guests participated in a number of soil experiments, and I was impressed at how interested in the topic they were. In the evaluations following the tour, one guest wrote, “I was impressed with the work being done on soil health. This is generally not a topic of conversation, but soil health management is crucial in Ontario today.” Another guest wrote, “I know in my mind that soil health is important, even for my own little balcony planters. However, I don’t think about soil the way I would think about other sectors. So hearing more about soil health at the centre was very interesting and makes me realize how vital good soil is in the farming industry and for the environment.”

Farm & Food Care really appreciates the work being done by this committee, and we will continue to do our part to communicate to the public the fact that sustainable farming starts with soil health. Thank you.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you very much.

Clinton Monchuk, Executive Director, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan: My position with Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan allows me to see firsthand how speaking to Canadian consumers can actually help fuel food literacy. With fewer than 3% of our population actively engaged in farming or ranching, it makes sense that there are a lot of questions out there about how food is being produced. There’s a real disconnect between those who grow food and those who consume food.

There also seems to be a bit of a romanticized idea of how farmers shouldn’t be using modern genetics, technology or equipment to grow food, and that the good old days of growing food in the past were much better. I’m here to tell you they weren’t. Things are much better today in 2023 than they ever have been, and they will continue to get better with new innovations into the future.

Engagement with Canadians through storytelling helps build trust about food production in our great country, and this is my story. I farm with my brother Andrew, and we are fourth-generation Canadian farmers. Our great-grandfather homesteaded across the road from where our main farm currently exists. Over the last 117 years, we have continually made improvements to how we grow food, and I hope one day the fifth generation will take over our family farm.

When I speak to those who are not in agriculture, I like to say that without healthy soil, civilization as we know it would not exist. Healthy soil allows food security here in Canada, as well as security for those countries who buy the abundance of food we produce.

In 1996, my father made the decision to switch to a one-pass minimal tillage planting system, saving time and money on fuel, but also setting in process the capturing of carbon to put back into the soil. Previous to 1996, our system included tilling the soil, possibly putting down a granular herbicide through harrowing, tilling again, harrowing, then planting. These extra passes increased soil erosion and released carbon into the environment. With direct seeding technology, we can control the weeds through applying a non-selective herbicide like glyphosate and planting directly into the crop residue that was left over from the year before. This practice fundamentally changed our soil health, increased productivity and benefitted the environment.

Our family continues to use the latest technology, like variable rate nutrient application and — similar to Emmett’s mention of 4R nutrient stewardship — putting the right nutrients in the right place in the right amount at the right time and from the right source. I do have documents 1 and 2 that highlight our variable rate and soil testing. As a result, we are seeing increased soil organic matter, better aggregate structure and tilth, overall healthier soil and thriving soil organisms like earthworms in the soil. The benefits of this include more productive land, stronger resilience to changes in climate, healthier soil and a healthy environment for growing food.

In 2021, 95% of all Saskatchewan farmers used zero or minimal tillage practises, all contributing to better soil health and a reduction of carbon. Peer-reviewed literature is pointing to net‑zero emissions in Saskatchewan because of technologies like glyphosate, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and minimal tillage. This is document 3.

The positive story of what farmers are doing for the environment by bringing food close to net-zero emissions does not always make its way to classrooms or consumers to the degree it needs to. We are making an impact through initiatives at Agriculture in the Classroom, Farm & Food Care, 4-H and Canadian Food Focus. However, more can be done.

The best example of engagement is through our farm tours at Farm & Food Care, which everyone from college students to food influencers takes. Given the ability to see modern farms, feel the soil and talk to farmers, participants increase their knowledge of food production and have an overall stronger positive impression of our practices. Online, initiatives like Canadian Food Focus bring close to one million consumers into a discussion about food each month. We also provide them with videos and articles talking about food — the food they actually enjoy — that’s being produced throughout Canada.

You see, our soil has never been healthier. Our productivity continues to increase, and we are doing this all while being close to carbon neutral. This is really a great story that all Canadians should be proud of. Thank you.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you all very much for your presentations.

We’re now going to move to the question period. I will remind people that if you are using the translation earpiece, don’t bend too close to the microphone because the feedback is very harmful to our interpreters.

Senator Cotter, I know you have to step out shortly. Do you have time to ask a question?

Senator Cotter: If I may. I do have to go out for a while and talk about agriculture interests, funnily enough, but I’ll be back.

From my point of view, there’s no doubt about the importance of soil health and about my admiration for the work you do. If you listened to my speech on Bill C-234 last week — you, my sister-in-law and maybe six other people would have been the total audience, I suspect — you would have heard that message about the achievements that particularly Saskatchewan producers, but also across the country, are achieving on this topic. My question, though, is a little unrelated to that.

We are part of the Government of Canada, and we are speaking from a federal perspective. This report needs to start from that perspective. What do each of the four of you think that this report should say that would be meaningful to the kind of work you do and the overall goals regarding soil health? Could I ask each of you for maybe one minute on that, in the order you spoke?

Mr. Rouleau: One of the things that is very important is that there’s hands-on experience with regard to getting people to know what is related to soils and all the different profiles. I talk about the hands-on experience more from a classroom perspective to make sure that there is, going forward, more investment on the education side of soil profiles. Then, when they become consumers, they better understand where their food comes from and will maybe look at working in agriculture and environment and bringing that perspective they were given in the classroom.

Mr. Sawyer: From my perspective, what I’d like to see from a report like this is where and how we can get youth engaged in a topic such as soil health. We are looked to as future leaders, and it seems like in many ways we are looked to as activists on topics such as this. When I look at an organization like 4-H, I see it as an organization that does a great job of encouraging youth to lead the way on important topics and be leaders in their own communities. When I look at a report like this, I think it can include finding ways to give opportunities to youth to engage in the importance of soil health and be advocates in their own communities, perhaps even giving examples of youth already doing things such as this. If we’re able to do that and see it in a report like this, that will be very important, especially because if we do not engage our youth, anything we do today and in the future is for naught.

Ms. Daynard: Prior to our meeting this morning, Farm & Food Care and 4-H were having a really interesting side conversation here. It was related to all of our work and how the sky is the limit if there’s only funding to do it. I think all four of our collective organizations spend a lot of time with our hands out in the agricultural community, looking for funding to do our amazing projects. The Real Dirt on Farming project that you see there is an expensive booklet to produce. We then work with Agriculture in the Classroom Canada on an educator guide, and we’re working with 4-H on a 4-H resource to go with it. I’m proud that I work with farmers’ dollars, but we could use more. Certainly, talking about soil health is really critical, and the audiences that the three of our groups reach need to know that information. We could use help.

Mr. Monchuk: From my perspective, I would love the heads of government to actually acknowledge what good work we do. As a farmer, I find that the positive things we’re doing and the things that we can celebrate are not being acknowledged at the highest levels of government in this country. I feel that sometimes some of the practices we do even come under attack, even though they have very strong, positive environmental benefits for this country. I would say there has to be a strong degree of action from the heads of government to promote what we’re doing to consumers as well.

Senator Cotter: The last point resonates a good deal with some of us around this table these days.

The Deputy Chair: Mr. Maynard, I believe you had a comment as well.

Hugh Maynard, Interim Chief Executive Officer, 4-H Canada: I was reflecting on what everybody was saying. I have a short anecdote. My daughter and her husband run a you-pick, direct-to-consumer agritourism farm just outside of Montreal. They encourage families to come out for half a day or a whole day and pick and rummage around. For the first time this fall, they had a pick-your-own-potatoes event. They gave you a shovel and a bucket, and you went out into the field. It was pouring with rain on the Saturday it was scheduled. They had 160 families show up and dig potatoes in the mud in the field with their kids and have a great time — with the staff there to help them and talk to them. When you talk about a publication, put in there — as everybody said — programs that help people get their hands dirty. I think that’s the easiest way to engage people in soil health.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you all very much.

Senator Klyne: I have two questions for the executive directors of both chapters of Farm & Food Care, Ms. Daynard and Mr. Monchuk.

My first question is this: In your experience, what has been the issue that most engaged the non-farmers that you engage with? My second question is this: Is there a critical area of farming that still eludes the general public about the importance and realities of farming today, and do you have a message to convey in that regard?

Mr. Monchuk: From my perspective, the biggest one is that disconnect on a lot of the modern technologies. Whether I’m using a genetically modified crop or spraying a herbicide that’s been vetted through Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, or CFIA, when they see my large high-clearance sprayer right by the Trans-Canada Highway, question marks come up.

The perception from consumers in a general sense is that they don’t understand it, so it’s automatically negative. There’s a great Jimmy Kimmel bit where they ask people in the market if they are for or against GMOs. Everybody says they’re against GMOs. Then he says, “What’s a GMO?” Nobody knew what it was, but they were against it.

It’s one of those things where there is that sense of negativity to it, and I feel that comes up again and again. That then relates to the environmental question, which is I don’t know what you’re doing but it must be bad. It’s the complete opposite.

When we talk to consumer groups, dieticians, doctors and people in health and wellness, we explain that what we’re doing through these new technologies is a huge positive, and they’re amazed. They didn’t know. I think that is one of the biggest hurdles, and that’s what we’re trying to overcome.

Ms. Daynard: Very similar comments from me. I’ve always said that if we could just take every Canadian to a farm for one day, there wouldn’t be a need for groups like Farm & Food Care, and that would be amazing.

As one example, we do work with Algonquin College here in Ottawa. Every year, I put their amazing culinary students on a bus and take them out to farms. Last year, we were at SunTech Greenhouses in Manotick, just outside of the city. They are a cucumber and tomato greenhouse. It’s a group of dazzlingly smart young chef students who will be working in our restaurants and hotels when they graduate. We went through the greenhouse, and this kid gets back on the bus at the end of the tour and says, “Ma’am, I had no idea that there was that much to know about a tomato. I just thought it was a garnish on the side of a plate.” I said to him, “Well, then, my work here is done.” That was just a tomato.

We host these big breakfasts on the farms. I’m going to invite all of you next year to a breakfast on the farm at Prince of Wales Drive here in Ottawa. In June, we’re hosting one there. We’re expecting 3,000 people to come out to that farm just for breakfast and a farm tour. There is nothing that compares to the tangible touch of getting to know farmers and farms.

Senator Klyne: Mr. Monchuk, is there one key message you would like for Saskatchewan non-farmers to understand when it comes to the five different zones of soil in Saskatchewan and the soil health in that regard?

Mr. Monchuk: I think the biggest thing is we treat our soils. What I do on my soil is different from what Emmett does on his soil in Alberta. We soil test to make sure we’re getting the optimal amount of productivity out of that soil. We use all those modern technologies to do it.

I always like to show a little video of my daughter combining peas with me and saying, “We eat what we grow.” You have to realize that we’re consumers of our own food as well.

Senator Wells: Thank you, panel, for your presentations.

I’m from Newfoundland and Labrador where farming isn’t a big industry. We’re very much a fishing province, as well as other natural resources. When I think of soil health and I compare it to Newfoundland and Labrador, I would think of water health, which we all know is also important.

Mr. Sawyer, you had mentioned practices, and Mr. Monchuk did as well. I want you to educate me about the depth of soil, the practice of fallow, crop rotation and natural additives and non-natural additives that are good. Can you talk a little bit about what makes an optimal soil or a healthy soil for the purposes of growing?

Mr. Sawyer: Absolutely.

Senator Wells: And are there different qualities for root vegetables versus leafy vegetables or that kind of thing?

Mr. Sawyer: On our farm, the way we look at soil health is our first stop is our agronomist. That’s a person who is educated in soil health, and they’ve gone to school. The first step is we go out and test our fields to determine what nutrients we’re starting with. That’s to ensure we don’t put on too much fertilizer that will leach into our watersheds. That’s step one.

Once we understand what nutrients are present within our soil, then we can come up with a nutrient plan. On most of our fields, we are using synthetic fertilizers, but that’s only trying to replace what we’re missing nutrient-wise. We talk with our agronomist and set out the ideal number of bushels we’re trying to get based on what we think we can get and what the environment will provide for us. If we think we can get 60-bushel canola, we’re going to do our best to provide the correct amount of nutrients for a 60-bushel canola, no more, no less. That’s step one.

Once we do that, the agronomist then provides us with a nutrient plan. That nutrient plan looks different when we’re trying to shoot for a 110-bushel barley field compared to a canola field because they require different rates of fertilizer. A canola plant takes up a lot of nitrogen, so we’re going to have to put more nitrogen in our fertilizer blend on that specific field, potentially. I think that’s just one example. If we’re trying to grow barley crop, our nutrient levels are different in our brown soil zone compared to something like a canola crop.

Senator Wells: Thank you.

Mr. Monchuk: If I could just make a comment specifically to what Emmett is talking about, I did submit documents 1 and 2 in my package that actually provide the soil testing. You can see from that that these are fields that might only be a quarter of a mile away, but they have completely different requirements to get that optimal crop. All the way to the mapping that we do, that varies the rate as we’re going up and down hills — we do have hills in Saskatchewan — and going around different places. It really is a great visual just to see how much it can change, not only from field to field but even acre by acre within a field.

Senator Wells: You mentioned six inches of soil. What’s typical on the Prairies? If I dug beyond six inches, what would I get? Are there some places it’s a metre, or how does that work? Or is that just the usable portion?

Mr. Monchuk: Getting back to Senator Klyne’s comment, it really depends on where you are throughout the Prairies. Where we farm, we can have that productive layer of soil being a couple of inches to 10 to 12 inches, depending on whether you’re on the top of a hill or at the bottom of a low spot. It is highly dependent. In some areas, you’re just at the top inch of the soil, and it might be different in Alberta.

Senator Wells: I do want to hear from Mr. Maynard, but before I run out of time — and maybe I already have — you do have a lot of champions in Parliament, both in the Senate and in the House of Commons. A couple of names come to mind. Obviously, there’s Senator Black, who can’t talk about the budget without mixing in agriculture. He can’t talk about taxation without mixing in agriculture. He’s your greatest champion in Parliament, as well as obviously John Barlow from Alberta and Ben Lobb from Ontario. You may know that we’re in the middle of discussing Bill C-234, which I’m the sponsor of, and in almost every speech I give, I talk about farmers, ranchers and growers being the stewards of the environment. I wanted to ask — I’ll go on round two. Can I ask the question and then wait for the answer on round two?

The Deputy Chair: No, because you’re out of time, but I think we’ll have time for a second round.

Senator Jaffer: Thank you so much for being here. It has been extremely interesting. Our study has been going on for some time, and every time I come here, I think, “What more can I learn about soil?” But I have genuinely learned a lot, so thank you.

I have specific questions for all of you, but I’ll start with you, Ms. Daynard. You said that the federal government should provide some funding and work with provinces, territories and stakeholders to enhance funding for the delivery of your programs. When you say that, what do you specifically mean?

Ms. Daynard: I think all three of our groups do an amazing job of doing a lot of work with very tight budgets, and we’re really proud of the work we do and proud to work with farmers —

Senator Jaffer: Can I stop you? Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude. One of the things we will do in our report is make recommendations. If you want to see your recommendation, what would it look like?

Ms. Daynard: I would look for a recommendation that included funding for more outreach initiatives by groups like the three of us to tell the story of soil health to Canadians. I guess that would be the basic answer.

Senator Jaffer: Mr. Sawyer, if I heard you properly, did you say you were in egg farming?

Mr. Sawyer: I grew up on a mixed farm, so we farm both grain and cattle.

Senator Jaffer: One of the things that’s not covered in climate change but something — in all transparency, I’m a farmer — that we face is diseases. We are finding more and more diseases. In all the years that my father was farming, he just had one incident of avian flu. In the short time we’ve taken over, we’re now having the second one. Do cattle and soil have any challenges like that?

Mr. Sawyer: To be perfectly honest, senator, when it comes to the animal side of things, I’m not nearly as educated as I could be on that topic. I don’t think I can comment on the animal husbandry side. When it comes to soil health, we do have soil-borne diseases. The nice part is that, through innovations and technologies, whether through seed treatment for our cereals or canola crops, we’ve really been able to combat those diseases, things like Rhizoctonia, Pythium and smuts and bunts. Thankfully, farmers have the technology from different agricultural companies that have provided them with the solutions for farmers to increase their yields by being able to be protected from soil-borne diseases. So they are definitely out there, but thanks to technology, farmers are. for the most part, protected from soil-borne diseases. It’s just for them to manage, but the tools are there.

Senator Jaffer: I had a question for Agriculture in the Classroom. I’m really happy to hear about Agriculture in the Classroom. I should go on your website and look this up rather than asking you, but do you go at all ages, or do you start at a senior level?

Mr. Rouleau: That is a very good question. Our Agriculture in the Classroom programs are from K to 12. Of course, the topics and the discussions we have with youth who are in grades 1 and 2 are different than those with seniors in high schools. We talk about production agriculture, then we’ll talk about food processing and then we’ll explore careers. We explore over 30 careers in our career program for high schools to encourage young Canadians to be able to see themselves in the agriculture and agri-food industry. That includes environmental technicians, soil health specialists and researchers, not just the typical farmer that we perceive in society.

Senator Jaffer: Thank you.

Senator Osler: Thank you to all the witnesses for being here today.

I’m a senator from Manitoba and a physician by training who is very interested in the connection between climate and human health. That connection has mainstreamed into the global climate change agenda. I happened to be at COP25 in 2019 when it was in Madrid. This year, at COP28, they had the first ever health day where there was a declaration of climate and health done by 124 nations. There was a $1 billion commitment to back up those commitments.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the One Health concept. It’s a unifying approach aiming to sustainably balance and optimize the health of people, animals and ecosystems. Have any of your organizations or the broader ag industry had conversations about exploring the connections between climate change, farming, soil health and human health? I would ask for a comment from 4-H, then Farm and Food Care Ontario, and then Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan.

Mr. Sawyer: From 4-H Canada’s perspective, I touched on our Dig Into Soil outreach program. That has been one of the steps 4-H Canada has been able to take in order to help educate their members on the importance of soil health, how it relates to and how it can solve Sustainable Development Goals No. 13, which is climate action, and No. 15, which is life on the land. There is an activity booklet that our youth members can partner, start to fill out and learn about alongside their leader, so they have someone they can look up to who can guide them through this process. That is just one example in which 4-H is beginning to go on that path of showing them and really use youth as that light to lead the way in climate action and how soil health is important. We’ve had great success. We’ve had 7,000 youth through this program already, and over 95% said they learned something new about agriculture and why soil health is so important. It has been a great success so far.

Ms. Daynard: I was doing a little bit of research on all of you before I came here today, and I have to say I was especially pleased that you were on this committee because I think there is such a connection between our health and the food we eat. I don’t think people think about that enough.

Something we always try to do at Farm & Food Care Ontario is to talk about the importance of food. We spend a lot of time working with registered dieticians, because they have such huge circles of influence with their clients and the grocery stores they work with. We’re always advocating the importance of the food you eat. It’s about shopping with knowledge. I will point out that we have a section on One Health in that booklet. I’ll encourage you to check that out later.

Mr. Monchuk: My previous job before I was with Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan was working in the poultry industry. There was a key moment back in the mid-2010 to 2015, making sure we took a different approach to the use of, say, antibiotics. That resulted in a large reduction in the use of antibiotics for the betterment of society in general.

When I look at soil health, both Emmett and I mentioned the 4R stewardship program. That is something farmers can do to make sure we’re not having any of that spillover. We do farm by waterways. You do have larger rainfalls that come down now. We want to make sure we’re actually ensuring things like water are being protected in what we do so that it’s not going into a waterway and contaminating something else. On our farm, that’s something that is near and dear to us. We want to make sure the environment around us, the wildlife and everything else, is flourishing too, because with a flourishing environment around us, it makes our farm and soil better. It’s just the amount of wildlife we see. It gives my dad something to do on his drives every morning when he looks around at everybody else’s crops too.

Yes, I think it is a huge thing that we’re all looking into.

Senator Osler: Thank you very much.

The Deputy Chair: We will now go to a second round, and Senator Wells can start by continuing with the question he was trying to ask.

Senator Wells: You heard my preamble with respect to stewards of the land. I would like to hear from Mr. Maynard first. There was discussion of carbon capture and carbon neutrality. Tell me what it means when we say things like people in the agriculture industry are stewards of the environment.

Mr. Maynard: Kicking off on your earlier question about the soil, where I live south of Montreal, the prime agricultural land is the bottom of what used to be the Champlain Sea hundreds of millions of years ago. The clay is hundreds of feet deep. It just keeps going down and down. But the only important part is the top six to eight inches, which is the organic matter. If you don’t look after that organic matter, it doesn’t matter how good, consistent or uniform your soils are; it’s not going to make any difference.

The key for me in many regards to the whole aspect of stewardship is that top six inches. It can’t blow away. As Emmett was referring to, in past days, the snowdrifts would be covered with a tinge of soil. Now you see a lot less of that. That is an example of stewardship. Through no till practices and other kinds of cultivation, farmers have significantly reduced the amount of soil erosion. Once it blows away, it doesn’t come back. That would be a good example of stewardship.

Then it moves on to erosion and the management. The whole thing with artificial intelligence and using those tools in the technical and knowledge management has fantastic potential. That, just as much as the physical component of the organic matter, is also going to be hugely beneficial in stewardship, because knowledge is power. Whether it’s health or anything else, knowledge is power. It’s then putting it to work.

Senator Wells: Mr. Monchuk, your comments on the question of carbon capture and carbon neutrality.

Mr. Monchuk: It’s interesting. One of the biggest things is that when we switched to doing the practices we do now, it actually had everything to do with saving money on diesel. We didn’t know that it was capturing all this carbon until later on, but it caught on, not only across the Prairies but throughout the United States and here in Ontario and Quebec. It’s something that we now know is a huge benefit, taking that carbon that’s being sequestered, put into that plant matter and put back into the soil. When you roll that soil over, disturb it and push it back up, it goes back into the environment.

I hate to rag on certain policies, but there is a policy that indicated, “We don’t care what you did in the past. We’re just looking from a certain year onward.” One of the issues with that policy is that I would actually be better off to till up my land right now and go back to direct seeding. That doesn’t have any environmental benefit, and we don’t want to do that on our soil, but that’s what it looks like right now. I’m sorry, but that’s a silly policy.

We have to make sure that we’re thinking about the best situation for the soil and the environment. Not only that, we’re producing this food for our people. We want to make sure we have a consistent, productive capacity of our land to make sure we have food security here in this country.

Senator Wells: I’m going to ask the same thing to Mr. Sawyer. He works the land as well.

Mr. Sawyer: Clinton made mention of how many times we used to go through our fields. When I talk to my father and my grandfather about what we used to do, not only would we till it. We had no new forms of weed management, so we would turn the soil over to try to reduce weed populations. We were releasing carbon that way. We would start to harrow and heavy harrow, and then we would go in as well and try to seed into that. Now, on our farm, we are really only going into that field twice a year. The first time is either we’ve done a light harrow either in the fall or the spring, depending on how much straw we think is there that we need to bust up to allow for us to direct seed better, and then we direct seed. That’s all we do in that field. That’s it. Then, through the advancements in technology and working with our agronomist, we can go into that field with our sprayers. We do very little field work now.

The Deputy Chair: Mr. Monchuk and Ms. Daynard, you’re working directly with the general public. Mr. Rouleau, you’re developing programs for all kinds of classrooms. But when I think of 4-H, I think of them focusing on their own members who tend to be kids from agricultural backgrounds. I’m just curious to know from Mr. Maynard and Mr. Sawyer to what extent you’re able to take your excellent programs and expand the audience to young people who maybe do not have a farm background of any kind.

Mr. Maynard: That’s a challenge because 4-H is rooted in the agricultural and rural community. When we talk about knowledge is power and mobilizing that knowledge, we have a team of 7,000 volunteer parents. It’s a culture. It’s a family from one generation to the next. It’s very much structured that way. There is huge potential for programs like 4-H to go beyond that, and that’s where, of course, we need the program support, the financial support, to do that, because 4-H Canada and its provincial affiliates really are about supporting those volunteers and those kids who are in the program. Of course, that takes time and, as Kelly mentioned, an outreach on all those sorts of functional things to running a program. So it depends on the area. Some areas have more non-agricultural and non-rural participation. I know that in the United States, it’s huge in many of the communities, but they receive funding from each of the states that they’re located in, so that certainly makes a difference.

Mr. Sawyer: From my point of view, half the battle is getting that message out there that there are opportunities in urban centres to do projects where you don’t need to be on a farm. When I talk about 4-H to my friends who aren’t connected to rural places and I talk about all the things and the opportunities I was able to do through 4-H, they wish they had those opportunities, yet there are projects you’re able to do in our urban areas, whether it’s horticulture or projects growing your own vegetables in the city. The toughest option is finding leaders that are able to start these clubs in these urban centres. Once that happens, 4-H is a phenomenal youth development program. I will be biased, but honestly, it is the best in Canada, and I don’t think anything comes close to the life skills that it gives you. The moment that we are able to get more programs into those urban centres, it’s lighting a match, and it will explode because their youth development is so good.

The Deputy Chair: Mr. Rouleau, where in Canada are you able to operate? Is your market mostly in Quebec and Ontario, or where is the pickup for your programs?

Mr. Rouleau: Agriculture in the Classroom Canada has 10 member organizations that are provincial, so from B.C. all the way to Newfoundland. We have 10 member organizations that deliver all our national programming and have their own provincial initiatives. Our 2 million in reach is not located only in Quebec and Ontario but is located across Canada.

The Deputy Chair: Ms. Daynard wants to answer this question too.

Ms. Daynard: I was going to add that I’m a very proud 4-H alumni as well. Senator Black was one of my 15-year-old camp counsellors. Farm & Food Care has put a lot of work into training farmers to tell their stories so that when we’re engaging with consumers we have amazing farmers that are comfortable telling their stories. One of our priority areas is very much 4-H members too because we recognize them as the future storytellers and the future leaders in Canadian agriculture. We can’t say enough good things about the work 4-H does.

Senator Klyne: Do you have a story you would like to share about that camp counsellor?

Ms. Daynard: My 15-year-old self was a 4-H ambassador way back in the day, and Senator Black was one of our counsellors. I have great memories of that experience.

The Deputy Chair: That was well worth getting on the record.

I want to thank all of our witnesses: Mr. Rouleau, Mr. Maynard, Mr. Sawyer, Ms. Daynard and Mr. Monchuk, thank you very much for your participation today. As you heard, we were all very interested to hear from you. Thank you very much.

For our second panel, we welcome Dr. Steven Siciliano, Professor, Department of Soil Science at the University of Saskatchewan and, by videoconference, Dr. Derek MacKenzie, Associate Professor, Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta.

I invite you both to make your presentations. We will begin with Dr. Siciliano, followed by Dr. MacKenzie. You will each have five minutes for your presentations. I will signal that your time is running out by raising one hand when you have one minute left, and I will raise both hands when your time is up. We will begin here in the room with Dr. Siciliano.

Steven D. Siciliano, Professor, Department of Soil Science, University of Saskatchewan, as an individual: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. Good morning, senators. It’s a pleasure to talk with you today. I’m a professor of soil science and the Industrial Research Chair in In Situ Remediation and Risk Assessment. I’ve twice been the director of national programs in risk assessments that link soils to human and ecosystem health.

Today, I will talk to you a little bit about soil pollution. Most people don’t recognize how significant a problem soil pollution is. Soils basically kill 2 million people a year. Every year, a city the size of Calgary is wiped off the face of the planet through soil pollution. This actually isn’t their major impact. The major impact from soils is approximately 17 million disability life‑years lost due to soil pollution. It’s the primary leading cause of disability after we finish adolescence. This arises because there are around 20 million contaminated sites across the world. On average, there are 1.72 contaminated sites per 100,000 inhabitants. In Canada, we have approximately 20,000 normal industrial sites and about 250,000 sites that arise out of abandoned oil and gas wells. Whether or not you consider those true contaminated sites is another issue.

In the scope of this problem, the good news is the Government of Canada, the federal government, has taken some really strong initiatives over the last 30 years. The development of the soil health group in Environment Canada has emerged as a world‑leading institute for the development of soil ecotoxicity testing species and the frameworks for it. The contaminated soils advisor group, located in Health Canada, has provided expert support, largely in human health risk assessment arising from pollutants that come from soils.

Some emerging policy gaps are challenging Canada’s existing policy framework. One of those has to do with contaminated soil. As the senators are probably well aware, contaminated soils are a provincial jurisdiction. Soils are managed at a provincial level unless they are on federal lands or other territories. When contaminated soils impact waterways, that’s also a federal jurisdiction. However, the policies and the frameworks that were developed never envisioned situations where contaminated soils would be impacting the atmosphere. Over the last 20 years, a scientific consensus has emerged about the importance of contaminated soil systems in methane and nitrous oxide release and mitigation. This is currently living in a policy no‑man’s‑land. Nobody knows who should be managing that.

There are some easy — well, I think they are easy, perhaps more difficult, I’m sure — but there are some great steps that the federal government can take to benefit the health of Canadians from contaminated soils.

One of those would be very simple — paving roads. I was in Iqaluit doing a study, and the federal government had sponsored a large paving program throughout Canada. The lower region of Iqaluit was being paved. In so doing, we dramatically reduced the health risk and the cancer impacts from — well, not contaminated soils, but, basically, unpaved roadways, which are a major source of childhood risk.

There are also some other easy steps that can be taken. The guidelines were first set in the early 1990s, and they have not been updated since then, so critical PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, such as pyrene and phenanthrene, have not been updated. As a result, when we’re trying to protect an ecosystem like earthworms, we’re forced to use groundwater standards. This leads to a bad situation because the best way to protect groundwater is to pave that ground. Obviously, that kills the earthworms. In essence, to save the earthworms, we end up in a situation where we kill them. This has happened repeatedly in Canada, and it can be addressed by the federal government funding its existing institutions to update those guidelines so that owners of those contaminated sites can manage the ecosystem to better restore it.

That leads me to my third and, I think, the most interesting and the most difficult thing. Over the last 30 years, we’ve realized that we need to mitigate soil pollution. If we can also restore and enhance ecosystem health in all of its aspects, that will benefit everyone, the humans and the animals. But our current chemical criteria do not readily allow us to do that. Re-envisioning that criteria, I suggest, would be a very good national effort to start that conversation on how we can improve ecosystem health and therefore also change how we manage our contaminated sites. That will lead to better human health and ecosystem outcomes.

Thank you.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you very much.

Derek MacKenzie, Associate Professor, Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, as an individual: Distinguished members of the Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, good morning and thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss with you soil health and the need for a data institute. I am an associate professor of soil science in the Faculty of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta, which is situated in Treaty 6 territory.

I am before you today to address the fundamental, yet often overlooked, foundation of our nation’s societal, agricultural and environmental well-being — soil health. As we navigate the challenges posed by a changing climate and the ethical responsibility to sustainably feed a growing population, the significance of soil health cannot be overstated. The health and, therefore, function of our soil are not merely foundational to agricultural productivity; they are intrinsically linked to our society’s health, environmental resilience and the quality of our food systems. Recognizing the critical role that soil plays in ensuring food security, mitigating climate change and preserving ecosystem function is necessary for our species’ survival.

We need a comprehensive and unified approach towards managing and understanding our soil resources. We have been collecting soil data for nearly a century in Canada, but this data is not available for use by the larger researcher community. Instead, it sits in drawers and filing cabinets or on computer hard drives in isolated research labs across the country, including academic, governmental and industrial labs.

Compounding the problem of the disparate locations of this data is the fact that there is no consensus on how to measure many of the critical soil health parameters. I often make a joke about asking 10 soil scientists how to measure available soil nitrogen and getting at least seven different answers.

I suggest that we need to bring soil science and soil health data into the 21st century with big data and that we model this after human health databases. In medicine, there is consensus on how to collect vital health parameters. For instance, blood pressure can be measured three ways — lying down, sitting and standing — and each will give you a different answer for the same patient, so the global consensus is to take blood pressure in a seated position. Now you have a globally comparable dataset. We use these globally comparable datasets to monitor human health and develop precision medicine. For example, the recent global mobilization to produce COVID vaccines was facilitated by medical databases and machine learning. I would argue that we need global mobilization to fight climate change and provide food security for a growing population. One way to do that would be to create a soil health database and use machine learning to help us generate best management practices or, in other words, soil medicine. As Shorty Fenski, a producer in my region, would say, “Soil health equals human health.”

Therefore, I suggest the committee recommends the establishment of a national soil health data institute. This institute would serve as a centralized hub for the collection, analysis and dissemination of soil health data across our nation. By working closely with research institutes across the country to collate diverse datasets and employ cutting-edge technologies, such as machine learning, this institute would facilitate a deeper understanding of soil function, enabling informed decision-making for producers, land managers, researchers and policymakers. It would also allow Canada to calculate accurate inventories of soil health parameters nationally for global reporting.

A national soil health data institute would not only provide a robust framework for monitoring and evaluating soil health but would also foster innovation, collaborative research and the development of best management practices. Through this institute, we can harness the power of data-driven insights to optimize agricultural practices, enhance sustainability, mitigate soil degradation and promote long-term environmental stewardship.

As much of the data generation is and has been publicly funded, the database would provide soil health report cards and suggest best management practices to producers for free based on their soil testing. The front end of the database could allow them to track carbon sequestration in order to tap into carbon credit markets. The producers that I work with are already practising regenerative agriculture, for which they want recognition and compensation. My observations from producer workshops indicate that they are clearly willing to take advantage of free online resources.

I have submitted a proposal outlining this institute as an endowed NGO operated by an executive committee that works in conjunction with a board of governors made up of senior representatives from agricultural producers, industry, government and academics. The establishment of such an institute signifies our commitment to safeguarding the very foundation upon which our human health, food security and environmental sustainability depend.

We have a saying in my faculty: Without soil, you would be naked, thirsty, hungry and homeless. I urge this esteemed committee to consider and support this pivotal initiative as an investment in securing a resilient and prosperous future for the people of Canada.

Thank you for your attention to this critical matter. I welcome your insights, collaboration and support in championing the cause of soil health for the betterment of our nation.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you very much to both of our witnesses. Since I had the privilege of meeting with you this summer on your home soil, I’m going to defer my questions to the end.

Senator Klyne: I have a question for each witness.

Dr. MacKenzie, we’ve heard a number of times in our study about the collection of soil data with regard to measuring soil degradation, soil erosion and so on. What escapes me is something that you’ve touched here with your proposed institute: a national repository where you can store and manage data.

My interest in that is that there are so many regional differences in soil across this country, from coast to coast to coast. In Saskatchewan alone, we have five different soil zones. If you’re pulling all these samples, how do we make the best use of them? There needs to be some kind of a national repository, I would think. You might be onto something with your proposed institute where it can be stored, managed, accessed and put to good use. I know there’s a lot of data collection being done regionally by provinces, but I’m not sure how the science around all that is coming together to better understand all the differences and the unique challenges, issues and opportunities with that. Would a national repository be an answer to this, like the proposed institute you mentioned?

Mr. MacKenzie: That’s a great question, thank you.

I think that is the power of database and data science. I’m a soil scientist, not a data scientist, but the data scientists I work with on campus, I think, would say that in order to collate diverse types of data, a database and machine learning is the best opportunity we have to compare those different datasets from across the provinces and to make regional comparisons. Your question is right. There’s a vast amount of spatial heterogeneity between soil types across the country, but a database would be able to resolve some of those differences.

As far as a national data institute, there are already many groups collaborating on generating this database, but in the end, there needs to be a formal institute to house the material where it’s not academic researchers working off the sides of their desk to curate the data. It’s an institute; it’s somebody’s full-time responsibility to curate the data. The idea with the data institute is that it would have research scientists work with the database, and they would all have regional expertise and connections across the country. Every province is working on a provincial database, and I think we can collate those into a national scale and have research scientists working to do that.

Senator Klyne: On that note, obviously there is stakeholder engagement required and funding. To grab their attention, what’s the leverage here? We’ll talk about the leverage being pain. What happens if we don’t do this? What are the consequences of not doing something like this?

Mr. MacKenzie: I think the consequence of not doing this is that we’re going to fall way behind the curve in terms of net global initiatives to fight climate change. One of the things I also talk about is that, in the very near future, we’re going to have a lot of instantaneous data that will be sourced from onboard farm equipment, and we need a place to put that data. We need a strategy to move forward in the future to use the massive amounts of data that will be generated. At this point, soil testing is a laborious process, but in the near future, there are going to be onboard, on-tractor sensors for monitoring many soil parameters in real time. I think that not setting up a database to be able to capture that data would put us way behind the curve globally.

Senator Klyne: Thank you.

Senator Osler: Thank you to both of the witnesses for being here today. I have a question for each of the witnesses.

Professor Siciliano, you were talking about ecosystem health. For this committee and for the record, can you elaborate on how human activities impact ecosystems and how these ecosystems impact human health?

Professor MacKenzie, can you elaborate on how soil health impacts human health?

Mr. Siciliano: Thank you.

For many years, my NSERC research program was titled, “How Humans Poison Soil and How Soil Poisons Humans.” I spent a long time thinking about that.

Humans poison soil, other than through the release of direct pollutants such as hydrocarbons or excess fertilizer, largely through compaction and sealing off the surfaces. The soil that is beneath this building is no longer alive. When you see them develop soils, you will often see them strip out the top productive layer and ship it away to be used on farms. One of the ways that humans impact soils is largely through our insistence on perfectly manicured lawns and tight, impervious surfaces.

In terms of how ecosystems impact human health, besides the obvious impacts — for example, we’re all going to eat 20 milligrams of soil today. Maybe 100 milligrams for those of us from Saskatchewan if we’re near harvest and there hasn’t been snow. If any of us have toddlers, they might, if given the choice, eat 13 grams of soil today. They will directly eat soil, and that can be significant. Small children have died from eating soils laced with dioxins and they did not know it. That’s one direct way.

How do we mitigate that? The mitigation ways for that are things like trees, city processes that encourage the use of greening and use of trees to intercept dust. Reducing dust is the primary way that we can help protect humans from soil that might otherwise poison them.

The other big way that soil can both poison and protect humans is through its cleaning of the ground water. We ensure that our soil is healthy so that ground water we drink does not poison us either through fecal coliforms or through pollutants directly. Those are the two major pathways.

Senator Osler: Thank you.

Mr. MacKenzie: It’s a great question. There are two ways that soil health is equal to human health.

In 2021, Henry Janzen came up with the notion — I’m sure this committee has learned lots of definitions of soil health — of defining soil health as a metaphor for function. The term “health” is broadly and publicly accessible, and it’s a good one. Whenever we say soil health, we’re talking about soil function. Decreasing soil function will decrease our ability to produce food and therefore decrease human health globally.

The other main way that it contributes to it — I liked your comment earlier in round one, senator, about climate change having a direct impact on human health. I’m glad to hear the COP is moving towards that recognition as well. If climate change is decreasing human health, then we have real potential where there are climate mitigation strategies using soil to sequester carbon. Any carbon sequestration in soil will represent an increase in soil function and soil health and, therefore, will have a trade-off for human health.

Senator Cotter: Thank you both for your presentations and for engaging us on a continuing basis on this important topic. Both of you have articulated a national perspective on this, which is very helpful for us.

Professor MacKenzie, you identified the challenges of people having different definitions, views and strategies. It reminded me of the joke about three types of economists: Those who can count and those who can’t.

Focusing on agriculture and soil health, I have a larger and maybe even a useless question, but I want to pose it anyway, if I might. Professor Siciliano, you and I were at the University of Saskatchewan for a reasonable period of time. I wasn’t a closed person, but I knew essentially nothing about your work and nothing about soil health until I came here and joined this committee. You probably didn’t know much about my work and probably don’t want to. That’s not important today.

It must be a frustration to both of you, seeing this is such a big public policy question, particularly for our country. Are there things that this committee can do in its report to help on that front and make the point, if I can put it this way, that your work is more important than mine? How do we come to understand that? Why don’t we know more about this? How can we get there?

Mr. Siciliano: That’s a challenging question. Two thoughts came to my mind.

One thought came to my mind about the Anna Karenina principle, namely the idea that all happy families are alike. Basically, they’re all based on love and respect. I know that sounds odd to say, but often we take soils for granted because typically we’ve done a good job. We are no longer doing a good job. I would say we are dramatically doing bad jobs. Why that’s happening is with the shift to urbanization.

You’ve heard from the previous panel that people who live on the land, from all walks of life and don’t have to be production farmers or subsistence farmers, are all dramatically linked. They understand intuitively. They never thought to say those things. It’s kind of like a parent knowing that if they give their kid breakfast, they’re going to have a good day in school, and if you don’t, they’re going to have a bad day. That’s what’s happened. As we’ve shifted away from that. We’ve gotten away from it.

You’ve seen it across Canada over my lifetime. For example, my department has lost over half of its faculty over the last decade. There are few departments of soil science left in the world. In Canada in particular, we’re getting to the point now that when Derek and I are doing research, we’re like, “For who is this important? To me, to you and to one more person? That’s it.” We’ve seen this disinvestment. I’m not sure why that’s happening socially. Perhaps it’s because we’re becoming less in touch with where our roots are. I completely agree with Derek’s comments that without soil, we won’t be here.

Mr. MacKenzie: I agree with Steven. Soil health has been overlooked because, in the past, we’ve been treating soil like a resource for extraction. We’re just harvesting nutrients out of soil, compiling them in cities and basically flushing them down the toilet into wastewater management. What we should be doing is looking at soil as a living organism, or at least the foundation of a living ecosystem that needs protection. That’s part of Henry Janzen’s definition. All of the soil health definitions include a component that soil is the foundation of a living ecosystem. If we were to shift public perception of it to the fact that it’s an organism that needs protection and needs to be fed, we would be doing better.

The good news is that soil health has never been more prevalent in popular media than it is today with movies like Kiss the Ground. The producers and directors of Kiss the Ground are in the process of making another movie right now about soil health. That’s their strategy. They have celebrities promoting soil health, and then you get broad public adoption. I think we need more education on soil.

The Deputy Chair: As an Alberta senator, I want to focus specifically on the impact of hydrocarbon industries on soil health. There are all kinds of soil pollutants, from overuse of nitrogen to microplastics. You each have expertise — I know because I’ve had the privilege of meeting you before — on soil remediation and the impact of energy production on soil. Can you each speak about the impact of that hydrocarbon production on soil health? What do we need to do to remediate in those areas? Dr. MacKenzie, I’ll start with you.

Mr. MacKenzie: Those are great questions.

My experience has been more on the side of land reclamation in oil and gas production and less on remediation, so we’ll start there.

The soil health concept is a good one for all sectors of the environment. It’s good for agriculture, it’s good for forestry and it’s good for land reclamation. However, it’s important to realize that the definition of soil health will be different in each sector and will probably require different management strategies. For example, a healthy forest soil is not necessarily a healthy agricultural soil. In all cases, we’re trying to promote function.

In land reclamation, the concept of soil health is useful because we’re trying to regenerate or reclaim ecosystem function. I think that using principles of restoration, ecology and soil health would help advance our ability to reclaim land in those environments more quickly. Honestly, in the end, we probably should be just leaving that oil in the ground and not having to reclaim those lands.

The Deputy Chair: I see what you mean. You don’t mean leave the tailings in the ground?

Mr. MacKenzie: Don’t go after the resource in the first place.

The Deputy Chair: Easier said than done. Dr. Siciliano?

Mr. Siciliano: That’s a really hard question. The fact of the matter is that if you were to go to the international leading conference on soil remediation and you were to ask everyone there — and, there are 10,000 delegates — how many of them ever closed or cleaned a site, no one would hold up their hand. I’ve been there, so I know.

As you well know, in this particular city, there’s so much pollution in the ground water you had to change the national standards so you could drink it. Previous to that, we would have said it was all carcinogenic and you couldn’t drink the ground water. It’s not just an Alberta and Saskatchewan problem; Ontario has big problems with TCE and other chlorinate solvents. The remediation of it in the subsurface is incredibly complex and long-lasting.

I personally believe that we’re on the track to more sustainable solutions for this, largely because of advancements in Alberta. I think Saskatchewan was the most recent province that enacted new legislation on regulation. In order to improve hydrocarbon remediation, in my opinion, the best thing that can happen is to have a national rediscussion about how we’re managing them. In the early days, the Maritimes led the way with RBCA, the Atlantic Risk-Based Corrective Action. Ontario kind of did what the EPA did in the 1970s, and then they kind of froze. Quebec is in its own strange world in terms of guidelines. One of the advantages of Saskatchewan is because it came last, we had some of the more interesting ideas. B.C. built on that because of issues about perceived conflicts of interest.

Right now, we have an uneven playing surface nationally. I think there’s an opportunity nationally to bring everyone back — level everyone up, as they say these days — and get everyone on the same field. That would allow us to have the ability to start addressing problems at a national level and actually start to make some pretty significant progress in closing many of these sites and also understanding what it is to actually close a remediation site. Until we do that, I don’t think we’re going to have a sustained ability to remediate those systems.

Benzene still kills a lot of people. We still don’t know how to clean it up. Instead, we’ve gone on to PFOS and microplastics. The number of people killed by benzene every year is so much greater than what happens with microplastics, but, instead, conversations become focused on what I would call “boutique pollutants” versus things that we use every day.

The Deputy Chair: I think maybe I’m not going to drink my nice Ottawa tap water.

Senator Jaffer: This has been a very interesting conversation. You have said soil health is human health. You answered this, but I will ask you again. In some places, soil is soaked with oil products and gas. In B.C., where I come from, when a gas station is sold, sometimes it takes years to clean it. You answered Senator Simons, but say it in my language: What does that do to the soil, and how do you clean it?

Mr. Siciliano: Well, I will disagree with the previous panel. Soil goes metres and metres deep, and it’s not just the top inch. Underneath these gas stations, gasoline and diesel will sit for a long time. One of the best ways to clean it, I believe, is to add a fertilizer that helps stimulate natural organisms to clean it up. That takes a long time. One of the reasons that’s not often done is economically — economists use this thing called the “discount rate” — it’s more effective to procrastinate, so they often don’t want to start remediation. But biology takes a long time to clean up a system. I’m not sure if I’m answering your question or not.

In essence, to clean up those gas stations, we’re working with Federated Co-op of Saskatchewan to develop ways for gas stations to be operating and cleaning at the same time. Currently, we don’t require that, and they all leak. Every gas station in this country leaks, period. In Ottawa — I can point at them — they all have leaked, maybe only a few litres, but it’s enough. Try drinking a couple of litres of gasoline and see how you feel.

It sits in the soil, and it will slowly start to clean up. We don’t need to dig it up, suck it up or burn it up — trust me, all these things are done. All we need to do is add fertilizer and leave the natural organisms. The great thing about hydrocarbons is they’re naturally occurring. Most organisms will degrade if you help the soil be healthier. I think that is what Professor MacKenzie is hitting on repeatedly, which is great. A healthy soil will be a clean soil, and a healthy soil leads to better human health as a result.

Senator Jaffer: Do you want to add anything, Professor MacKenzie?

Mr. MacKenzie: No, that’s great. I agree with Dr. Siciliano.

Senator Klyne: Professor Siciliano, I want to ask you about some research that you’ve done. I’m looking for any outcomes or lessons learned that can transfer to our study of soil health, degradation and erosion. I have to say on my behalf, not necessarily for others, that you need to simplify the answer, if you could, as if you were talking to a theatre of grandmothers, so that I can understand how we can apply this.

The work or research is around polar soils, generally, but then more specifically around the Antarctic and Arctic that you’ve looked at with regard to toxicology, greenhouse gas production, ecosystems, the nitrogen cycle and greenhouse gases, but in polar deserts. What’s applicable to us in that regard? Is there something you’ve learned that we can apply here?

Mr. Siciliano: Polar deserts are one of those cases where it’s me and one other person who is interested in that.

You probably don’t know that Canada is home to most of the polar deserts on the planet. About 1.6 million square kilometres of Canada’s North is a polar desert. We do a lot of resource extraction on those deserts, and they’re very fragile. What we can learn from the work in the Arctic and Antarctica is about how fragile our ecosystems are.

You heard from the previous panel about how the changes in farming practices have made our soils much more resilient, and that, I think, is the key lesson. If we make our soils more resilient by broadly promoting ecosystem health or, as Professor MacKenzie has mentioned, increasing function, then they’re going to be able to handle tough years.

We’re about to go into a tough year in Saskatchewan. We have no moisture yet. There is still no snow. We’ll see what happens, but knock on wood and hopefully we’ll get some moisture. But because of the work those farmers have been doing over the last 20 years, our soils will be much more resilient. Similarly, when we think about pollution, it’s the same idea. The more resilient our ecosystems are, in other words, the more natural, plants, trees, those sorts of processes help a soil grow and live. That’s what can help us keep systems healthy and happy.

In the polar regions, in Canada’s Arctic, in particular, look at how we built infrastructure in the Arctic and how we disrupted those soils and plant systems that were fragile, and, as a result, they’ve sort of continued to degrade, versus areas where the Inuit are still living that haven’t been impacted by that infrastructure. They’re going to be much more resilient. As the senators probably know, the people living in those systems are also going to be much happier and resilient. It’s a virtuous cycle.

If I may, I want to mention one thing about the data institute. Yesterday, I was in Adelaide. I flew back from Adelaide over some period of time — I’m not sure how this works — but now I’m here today. I went there because the Australians have this large soil health database. They’re sponsoring the development of 20,000 soil samples as a carbon baseline, and I was there participating with them. Previous to that, they had another 20,000 samples broadly organizing their soil. They know much more. When I do predictions on how climate change will impact soil function and soil health, I have to use Australian databases because there are no Canadian databases that can do it.

Senator Klyne: Thank you. I think I understood what you said there.

The Deputy Chair: You have a minute if you want to ask a follow-up.

Senator Klyne: I’m overwhelmed.

Senator Cotter: This conversation triggered two questions.

First, Australia is a federal country as well. How do they manage that in Australia? I don’t know enough about the agriculture jurisdiction distributed in Australia, but how do they do so well and we do so poorly?

Second, I noted you did some work in the North. We did hear about the risks in the North regarding the permafrost, global warming and release of CO2. Do you have a view on that, Dr. Siciliano?

Mr. Siciliano: To answer the first question, the Australians have a similar structure to us. They opened up a large funding pool that was open to everybody, so companies and others could apply to it. Groups could apply to it, such as some of the ones we saw here. The mandate was you had to do it federally. Whatever you were doing, you had to do it nationally. It prevented capture by one specific group, and that’s one of the reasons. They have that sort of vision.

In Canada, there has always been a bun fight between Ag Canada, Environment Canada and whoever does NSERC about who is responsible. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada manages soil for agriculture. Environment Canada manages soil for environment. NSERC allows research on soils, but it doesn’t really want to support projects that help agriculture. It becomes this balkanized process, and we’re living with the legacy of that. Recently, it appears in my view, as just a peon in that system, or minion, or whatever a prof is, that they’re finally getting away from this balkanization, but that’s the legacy we’re living in.

In terms of the Arctic soils, they are at tremendous risk, just tremendous risk. Remember, most of that infrastructure is built on permafrost that is certainly going to thaw. The amount of methane that is about to be released from the Arctic soils could be tremendous. It depends on how quickly. It’s a complicated project. For the people living there, I don’t know if soils are the biggest problem there. I think there are other problems, like sea‑level rise. If you’ve visited the Arctic communities, you know how close they are to the sea level. They have pretty significant human health risks occurring from housing and those sorts of things. In soils, I would say that the nitrous oxide is not going to be an issue. It is probably going to be methane and structural instability. Imagine if this building fell apart, which could readily happen. Those are the big risks. I think our engineering community would be up to helping us with being able to start. We have to start planning now for what infrastructure is going to have to be able to withstand in 30 years, for example, on the Dempster Highway. I don’t know if there is a federal program doing that. I hope there is.

The Deputy Chair: Dr. MacKenzie, did you want to answer that question about the federal nature of the database?

Mr. MacKenzie: Yes, I would love to just add to that answer. It’s interesting that the Australian government has a large funding pool. I just wanted to bring this committee’s attention to the fact that there is a co-funded grant by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, or NSERC and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, or SSHRC this year — proposals were due in November — under the sustainable agriculture research initiative. There was a large pool of funding available for national research, and one of the proposals I was associated with was for a large database project that’s been proposed. So, the beginning of this work has started or will start. If that project is funded, the beginning of this work will start, but I will argue that we still need an institute to house the database later on. I think this is a national research initiative conducted by research labs, and there’s still the need for an institute to take over all the work they’re going to do and help to administer it for the long term. I’m hopeful that this project will be funded and that we can find the funding to support an institute in the future.

The Deputy Chair: Dr. Siciliano, you began in your opening statement with some really shocking numbers about fatalities linked to soil toxicity. I wonder if you could dig a little deeper into those numbers for us. Is benzene the primary agent? What are the most toxic pollutants we have in our soil?

Mr. Siciliano: A lot of those deaths are occurring from heavy metal pollution in soils. For example, in an Iqaluit study, the primary risks from those are elevated chromium levels present in road dust, not all road dust, but depending on where the aggregates are coming from. When we think about those deaths, they’re largely coming about from heavy metals that are either entrained in dust that we inhale, or we —

The Deputy Chair: Are those heavy metals native to the soil?

Mr. Siciliano: Yes. They are naturally present.

The Deputy Chair: This isn’t that we’re putting the pollutants in?

Mr. Siciliano: We dug up the aggregates, we crushed them, we made them into gravel roads and then we drive on them. It gets on your hands and you eat it. But typically, it doesn’t get all the way down into your lungs. Instead, it comes back up into your stomach where you then ingest it. So, that is natural dust. Now, if you happen to be near a place that has a lot of heavy metals already in its soil, and much of Canada does — one of the reasons we have such a great mining industry is there are a lot of heavy metals present — we have those elevated rates.

The other big part would be water pollution. Contaminated soil means contaminated water. The two come together. That then leads to water that people are drinking that is also causing those sorts of pollutants.

The primary driver worldwide would be heavy metals, and then the next big one would typically be benzene. The reason for benzene and all the hydrocarbon mix is that it is the most persistent, and it causes cancer at very low levels. So those would be the two big drivers.

The third one — if I were to choose a third one — would be chlorinated solvents like in Ottawa, which come from the electronics industry or the aviation industry. The solvents used for electronics are chlorinated; they get deep in the groundwater; they’re very carcinogenic. They used to also be in dry-cleaning. Dry cleaners don’t use them anymore, but that is why people say, “dry-cleaning solvents.” It is actually present in most electronics.

The Deputy Chair: I live in Alberta. We still have plenty of gravel roads. It never occurred to me that gravel roads could be toxic to human health. Are you literally saying that if Prairie provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan paved more of our gravel roads, we would actually be healthier and our soil would be healthier? Presumably, those of us from the Prairies have driven down a gravel road, and the dust flies up and goes into the fields alongside.

Mr. Siciliano: I think that the gravel road it’s fine unless you happen to lick it. Most people don’t do that.

The Deputy Chair: It’s not my general practice.

Mr. Siciliano: Imagine a homestead that’s beside the gravel road. That dust comes up and lands down. You could pave the gravel road. That would be pretty expensive. Most homesteaders did just naturally what you do and planted trees and shrubs and have the dust interception. In Iqaluit, we saw it because it is in an urban centre where it’s not paved, with gravel roads and no trees or bushes, so it is going to be a huge driver. I would suggest initiatives to green those spaces, and then also, if necessary, pave the areas — those would be the two areas. I don’t think every gravel road should be paved. I would say in places with villages and hamlets like where I grew up, it would be good to pave them.

The Deputy Chair: Presumably, there are agricultural consequences too because it’s not just for the farmer that lives by the road. It’s the canola and the wheat that are getting the heavy metals blown on them. Or is that not a problem? Do they naturally cycle that through?

Mr. Siciliano: Yes, that’s not a problem. It’s more for us because of how we’ll interact. It’s not a problem for the wildlife because they don’t live long enough to get cancer. It’s for us long-living humans, especially our children, who are really susceptible to cancer.

Senator Osler: I’m going to follow up on that question a little bit and ask Professor Siciliano to explain a little bit more in terms of the question just raised about how the solvents, heavy metals and benzene are affecting human health. There is a step, I think, in there in that as humans were exposed to, inhaled or ingested these compounds. It’s not that as a physician we will scope somebody and say, “Look, there is benzene, and that’s how you’re going to die.” Benzene is a carcinogenic compound. Perhaps, for the record and for this committee’s information, without going into too much detail, could you talk about exposure to heavy metals, benzene and solvents? They get into our bodies and exacerbate underlying conditions? Are they carcinogenic? Do they cause pulmonary fibrosis? Without going into too much detail, what is that link between exposure and death?

Mr. Siciliano: Sure. I think you just outlined it. We get exposed to soil. It’s on our hands or in the air, and we breathe it into our lungs, but normally it is in our stomachs where it gets processed and we then defecate it. We’ll also bring some of those pollutants into our body over the long term, which can then give rise to either carcinogenic effects or autoimmune disorders. That’s one of the reasons people postulated that the Prairies, especially Saskatchewan, have a high level of multiple sclerosis, or MS. You don’t realize until you’re in Saskatchewan that you know a lot of people who have MS. I imagine, as Ontarians, you might not have people in your private circles who have MS. I have three people in my private circle who have MS. It’s also true in Alberta and Manitoba.

Children are so susceptible because, first off, they’re dirtier, so they eat more hand to mouth. They are also lower to the ground, so they actually ingest more dust. Just like juvenile swine, they eat just about everything. As a result, they’re relatively small, breathe a lot, eat a lot and are dirty, so on a weight by weight basis, they take in a lot more soil. If that soil has pollutants, like benzene or heavy metals, it will provide long-term impacts on their health. It’s very few children who are exposed to contaminated soil who get sick two days later. Normally, it takes 20 or 25 years for cancer to manifest. What I tell my students is, “What you’re doing today is what’s going to give you cancer when you’re 45, typically,” which gives them some cause for concern. These childhood exposures normally start manifesting in their 20s. The best thing you can do to improve child health — and this is one of the things I highlighted in my submission — is basically greening up these spaces so they’re not playing in dirt but on grass and in trees. We don’t want there to be a lot of dust around. Those are the big things that will help.

The other thing I haven’t had a chance to mention is household dust. The federal government sponsored a household dust survey, and then they shelved it because it was so scary that nobody wanted to look at it. Most people’s houses would be considered contaminated sites. I’m just a ray of sunshine, aren’t I? The difficulty there is that there is a link between what your soil is and how dirty the inside of your house is, but it also has to do with the age of your house. It has to do with your heating system, what your blinds are and what the house is painted with. In Newfoundland, without a doubt, there are paints used there that are 50% by weight lead. Eating those lead chips will certainly poison many people. The reason it’s prominent on the East Coast is because it was a paint that is really resistant to the sea’s influence on paint.

I am rambling a bit here, but all of those things together lead to long-term health impacts. It does take a long term to manifest.

Senator Wells: I have a comment. In many of the older homes — and I have a 200-year-old home — it’s all oil- and lead-based paint because of the marine aspect that you mentioned. I can see that, but I don’t think about it too much — until now.

The Deputy Chair: We have a little bit of time left, so I’m going to take the chair’s prerogative and ask Dr. MacKenzie one last question.

When I had the privilege of visiting your labs in Edmonton this summer, you showed me drawers and drawers of soil cores that had been collected over decades and generations. It was fascinating to see the different core samples from all different parts of the province. But you expressed to me your frustration that you have drawers and drawers of soil cores and no way to connect that fundamental dataset with anything else. I’m imagining that soil scientists across Canada have similar collections. You were talking about integrating datasets, but how do we integrate the actual knowledge that resides in those physical examples to make sure they’re not just literally gathering toxic dust in Earth Sciences buildings?

Mr. MacKenzie: That’s a great question. It’s interesting. There is a lot of work going on, as we heard in the first panel, among the academics in the country on soil education. There are lots of internet resources. Some of the soil scientists at UBC, for example, and my project are leading the way in education and creating internet resources for soil education. Those are open source. For example, the Canadian Society of Soil Science produced a textbook called Digging into Canadian Soils that is freely available to students studying soil science at universities. Part of the education initiative will include some of those resources in laboratories — those soil monoliths that are teaching tools, taking detailed, high-resolution photographs that can be used as teaching resources across the country.

I also wanted to touch on the idea that Dr. Siciliano mentioned. In Australia, they are taking archived soil samples and putting them into the database. We are trying to do the same thing in Canada as part of that national soil database proposal. There are probably 100,000 archived soil samples across the country, if not more, that have physical chemical data that was collected over the last 50 to 100 years. We have 100-year-old soil samples with physical chemical data at the Breton Plots in Alberta and at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research station in Lethbridge. Those samples can be reanalyzed today with modern spectroscopic techniques to generate libraries of spectroscopic data and physical chemical data that will be used in the future with the onboard equipment to generate spectroscopic data. We need to take those archived samples and start barcoding them or QR-coding them and putting them into the database with their associated physical chemical data and generating spectral data on them. That is another way to use these resources we’ve been collecting for 100 years. They are valuable. There was a lot of money spent to acquire them, and they still have a lot of value today.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you very much, Dr. Siciliano and Dr. MacKenzie, for your participation, even though I might not look at a glass of Ottawa tap water in the same way again.

I would also like to thank all the committee members for their active participation and thoughtful questions. As always, I want like to take this moment to thank all the staff who support the work of this committee. Thank you to the interpreters, the Debates team transcribing the meeting, the committee room attendant, the multimedia services technician, the Broadcasting team, the Recording Centre, ISD and our wonderful Senate page.

Our next meeting is scheduled for Thursday, December 14, at 9:00 a.m., when we will continue to hear from witnesses on the committee’s soil health study.

(The committee adjourned.)

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