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U of G researchers awarded $1.65 million for climate-smart soils research


July 17, 2019
By Top Crop Manager
Researchers from across Canada led by professor Claudia Wagner (pictured) will study ways to use climate-smart soil management to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Photo courtesy of University of Guelph.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) awarded $1.65 million in federal funding for a national University of Guelph-led project on climate-smart soils. Climate-smart soils are soils that enable farmers to grow crops and stem greenhouses gases.

The six-year project is the first soil-centred program to address a growing need for sustainable agriculture experts to improve food production while preserving soils and ensuring resilience to climate change.

The funding under NSERC’s CREATE (Collaborative Research and Training Experience) program was announced today by Kate Young, parliamentary secretary to the federal minister of science and sport. The CREATE program supports training of highly qualified students and post-doc researchers.

Researchers from across Canada led by Claudia Wagner-Riddle, professor at the School of Environmental Sciences (SES), will study ways to use climate-smart soil (CSS) management to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon.

“This research will address many of the issues we studied, which are critical to our farmers adapting to the climate change emergency we are currently facing,” said Guelph MP Lloyd Longfield, who presented a motion in 2018 for the House of Commons standing committee on agriculture and agri-food to study how the federal government might help the Canadian agriculture sector adjust to climate change and conserve water and soil.

Most of the world’s food is grown or produced on soils. Even as more farming is needed to feed a growing population, conventional agricultural production continues to cause such environmental problems as climate change emissions and soil degradation.

In Canada alone, crop productivity lost to unsustainable farming practices costs about $3 billion a year. Under climate-smart management, farmers might aim to increase soil organic matter, for instance, which can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Soils are really key,” said Kari Dunfield, a professor within SES who holds the Canada Research Chair in environmental microbiology of agro-ecosystems.

Soil microbes emit greenhouse gases, including nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. At the same time, properly managed soils can serve as sinks – akin to forests — to remove and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

“Soil is the place where we have the ability to start controlling and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. We need to find that balance,” said Dunfield.

The federal funding will allow researchers to train dozens of needed experts – undergraduate and graduate students as well as post-docs — in the field. In the coming year, the consortium will offer a U of G-based course on soil ecosystems, sustainable agriculture and climate-smart soil practices.

Dunfield said many of those students will take their soil ecosystem knowledge to work with public and private organizations

Besides Wagner-Riddle and Dunfield, the project includes professors Helen Hambly from the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development; and Alfons Weersink, Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics.

The CREATE-CSS team will involve researchers from U of G, McGill University, Dalhousie University, the University of Toronto, the University of Manitoba and the University of Saskatchewan. Other partners are industry and farming organizations, governments and non-governmental organizations, international development agencies and private companies.