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Sustainable soil management

In the 2015 International Year of Soils, two key global soil resources were published by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS). The first Global Soil Partnership (GSP) effort was a revised World Soil Charter and the second was the first ever State of the World’s Soil Resources Report.

June 8, 2018  By Donna Fleury

Canada’s representative to the 27 expert member ITPS panel established in 2013 is Dan Pennock, professor emeritus in the department of soil science at the University of Saskatchewan. Pennock, who is also lead author of the North American Chapter in the Report, was invited by the FAO to present the Status of the World’s Soil Resource Report as part of the closing ceremonies for the International Year of Soils at the United Nations in New York on World Soil Day, Dec. 5, 2015.

“The intention of the report was an effort to try to summarize the current status of soils globally and to determine how to improve further adoption of sustainable soil management practices in all regions of the world,” explains Pennock. “One of the big things we discovered from developing the report is the lack of information to do this properly at a global scale. Although in some regions there was a lack of good information, in North America and in particular Canada, we have a very good system of collecting the science and looking at soil threats.” ITPS is working towards improving the quality of soil information available for policy formulation and future reporting.

Overall the report showed the soil conditions in many regions to be in only fair or poor condition, however the data showed that Canada and in particular the Canadian Prairie region was in good condition. “I think the story in Prairie Canada in terms of sustainable soil management is actually a very positive story, and actually as positive as anywhere in the world by the data available,” explains Pennock. “That’s in large part driven by the adoption of conservation tillage or no-till by producers across the prairies over the past many years. For our environment, this is a very sustainable soil management approach. Overall, producers on the prairies practicing conservation tillage, using good rotations including pulse crops and leaving sufficient time between crops like canola is a very sustainable practice.”


Although the adoption of conservation tillage is positive, it also means continual herbicide use, which is a concern for some. However, based on the science, there is no solid evidence linking types of herbicides used in the prairie to ecosystem or human health issues. Pennock notes that for the prairies, improving N and P use efficiency would be the ultimate goal of improving sustainable soil management. By reducing N losses, especially greenhouse gas forms, growers win by having more N available to plants and the environment wins from improved efficiency. “This is really the key message of what ITPS is trying to do. It’s that sustainable soil management really benefits producers and really benefits the environment – done correctly it is the win-win we are really focused on.”

The next steps – building on the ITPS Report

Using the report as a foundation, the ITPS expert committee is already working on the next steps. “The ITPS has drafted Voluntary Guidelines on Sustainable Soil Management that will begin to bridge the gap between the local decision-making required for implementation of sustainable soil management and the high-level governance work of the GSP,” explains Pennock. “This is basically meant to be general guidelines for national governments for what constitutes sustainable soil management, it is not meant for use by individual producers at this point. The concept is similar to the established sustainable forest practices code, where national level guidelines are developed based on benchmarking current practices. The concept is that buyers could then buy agriculture products produced from land that was sustainably managed. The development of these voluntary guidelines is a first step towards that.”

The voluntary guidelines have passed the first two levels of review and are expected to receive final approval by the main body of FAO in December 2016. The next major task for the committee will be to develop ways of getting national or regional equivalence for these voluntary guidelines for sustainable soil management. “Although some would argue that more regulation isn’t needed, the market place is already beginning to demand sustainable soil management codes,” says Pennock. “The UN body is well-positioned to develop the guidelines with their international credibility and science-based strategies.”

The Prairies and Canada are well-positioned to move forward as there is already a solid body of background research and tools available to begin the process of developing national equivalence for the sustainable soil management guidelines. Researchers with federal and provincial governments, academic institutions and others have made significant advancements in sustainable soil management research and continue to keep this as a priority. For more information:


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