Proposed National Soil Strategy calls up Canadian Farmers to Combat Climate Change
WT Interview with Alistair MacGregor, MP for Cowichan - Malahat- Langford (British Columbia), Nov 22, 2021
WT: I have the Honourable MP for BC's Cowichan-Malahat-Langford riding, Alistair MacGregor, also Canada's Agriculture Critic, here to discuss his private member's bill, a National Soil Strategy for Canada, thanks for doing this. What is the vision for your bill, how is this Soil Conservation Act and National Soil Strategy going to help Canada meet our climate targets?
MacGregor: The vision that I had for that bill, I really wanted to put agriculture forward as a driving force and as one of our most effective tools in actually combatting climate change. It's going to require a fundamental paradigm shift in how we practice agriculture.
A lot of the agriculture we currently practice in Canada, and indeed in many parts of the world is very much a high-input/high-output style of agriculture. It can be very intensive in the use of fossil fuels, pesticides and fertilizers, which all contribute to climate change.
But, there is a way, through healthy soil management, through regenerative agriculture techniques, where
you can transform your soil, make it into a net carbon sink. You can really build up that capacity of soil to be carbon sequestering.
This has a lot of benefits, first of all, you are taking carbon out of the atmosphere where it is causing havoc,
putting it into the soil, which really helps with the soil ecology, helps support an amazing ecosystem right there in the subsurface level.
It also helps farmers grow better food, it allows farms to better withstand extreme weather events. When you have a lot of carbon in soils,
they retain water much better. If there is a drought, your soil will retain water a lot longer, but also if you have flooding, healthier soils will act like a sponge, helping with the excess water that agricultural soils experience.
The Bill won't be called C-290, that was a number given in the old parliament. It is my intention to re-introduce this bill in this new 44th parliament, not sure what number it will get.
WT: I'm glad you mentioned water, of course WT is interested in water quality. How will this bill impact water quality?
How might we see changes to the watersheds, to stressed water bodies in Canada? Will agriculture non-point source contamination be addressed? Will we possibly see maximum daily load limits established, will there be enforcement for water protection?
MacGregor: It is my hope that by establishing the (soil) strategy, what this really does is sets out some key principles that we want to achieve.
It also sets up a system where we are using best practices, where we have knowledge transfer and really a careful, coordinated partnership between the federal ministry of agriculture and its provincial counterparts, and various farm stakeholder organizations across the country.
It is my hope that if we put in a strategy that is trying to encourage these better soil management practices, as a consequence of that
we will see less reliance on fertilizer and on pesticides through the incorporation and adoption
of regenerative agricultural practices, which in turn will lead to less run-off into adjoining water bodies.
I think one of the big problems, not just from the various chemicals that you might see running off of agricultural lands, is also the incredible loss of soil that we have every year. When you don't practice those good ag methods you lose so much soil into our water systems, and then it is transported right into the oceans, and that in itself is also a very big concern.
If you look closely at what this bill is trying to achieve in establishing the strategy, we may not get to the kind of specifics you are talking about, because I think a lot of the specifics will fall under the mandates of provincial ministries. I do expect the specifics will find a home under the overarching umbrella that this strategy hopefully will establish.
WT: How are the provinces responding so far?
MacGregor: The only province I have had a conversation with any in-depth way, has been with BC, my home province.
I do know Minister Lana Popham (BC) fairly well, and I have had a few conversations with her over the years,
just so I can coordinate my role as federal agriculture critic with what is going on with British Columbia, as it is my home province.
She was very warm to the idea, I think as someone with a farming background, she definitely realizes the key that healthy soils hold in the whole agricultural value chain. We can't have a healthy farming system in Canada unless we are looking after our soils.
I think, more importantly, this bill requires passage through parliament first and foremost. What I have found
encouraging is that I have had colleagues from other parties express to me that they think this is a worthwhile idea.
I hope that I can gain some traction to see the bill's progress through both the house of commons and then the Senate to become law, then we can really get to work.
WT: Organic farmers have told WT that off-label use of glyphosate is an issue for their exports; the EU has stringent chemical residue limits residues are showing up even in organic grain samples, presumably mobile in the environment. Will this bill allow for enforcement of proper pesticide application?
MacGregor: It may not get into that level of detail, the residue limits are with the Pest Management regulatory agency,
Health Canada has a role to play, so I am not saying there isn't a federal role to play but it may be beyond the scope of what this bill is trying to achieve, it may be too specific.
Through this bill, I am trying to put healthy soils and soil conservation on the map as a critical goal, not only in trying to help us
realize our emissions targets but in trying to really show that through this paradigm shift, through establishing these regenerative techniques we can put farmers on a pedestal to play a central role in combatting climate change. What I have found as the agriculture critic over the last number of years, is that when you talk about agriculture and climate change, it invariably goes to a conversation on the carbon tax. This has been a very divisive argument within the agriculture community because so many farms are reliant on burning fossil fuels.
So this is my attempt to try and shift the conversation to show that agriculture is one of our best solutions in combatting this problem.
I really think that through healthy soil management will see all these beneficial effects, through water management as well, through the
adjoining waterways to agriculture lands.
WT: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported a few years back that if all agricultural soils of the world could increase stable organic matter by just .4% we could take care of a lot of the atmospheric greenhouse gases. Are you working with global soil folks on this?
MacGregor: I have reached out to a few national organizations: I have been working with Farmers for Climate Solutions, the National Farmers Union, also soil conservation council of Canada, the Deans' Council of Canada, they have all provided some helpful feedback on this.
One thing that is in my bill is a formal recognition of World Soil Day and also National Soil Conservation Week.
Also establishment of a national advocate for soil health, so we could actually have a government office set up to monitor,
and have a mandate to raise public awareness on the critical role soil plays in supporting agriculture and maintaining healthy soil eco-systems.
Canada is a signatory to a lot of the international agreements and acknowledgments of the role that agriculture can play. I do know
through my own research that in some places in the world, a well-managed hectare of soil can sequester 30 to 40 tonnes of carbon every year.
That's incredible, this really shows the potential that (soil) can play.
We as a world are so focused on trying to reduce our emissions, and rightly so, but we also have to do something about the excess
carbon built up in the atmosphere, if left there it will have greenhouse effects decades into the future.
WT: Canada's Fertilizer Act doesn't allow for the use of a lot of the soil biostimulant products used in other nations. What changes will your bill
bring to address this?
MacGregor: One of the requirements of the National Soil Strategy is to have a review of existing legislation.
There is a specific section which calls for a review, to make sure we are having everything in line with the goals
of the strategy. (Subsection 3e "Where appropriate, incorporate the principles and practices of regenerative management into policy guidance and legislation.")
I don't make specific reference to the Fertilizer Act or to any other acts, but their review would be part of the strategy, if enacted.
WT: Why a private member's bill? Was there no support from government on this?
MacGregor: The short answer as to why, it's the only avenue open to me as a private member. Yes, the government absolutely
could bring in its own legislation, but I have found it is best to provide them with an example.
Once you have a concrete example, i.e., a tabled bill, there is nothing stopping government from introducing their own bill,
copying and pasting what I have into what they would like to do. It's all part of a strategy where you have something tangible that you can build a campaign around, sometimes it really aids you in convincing the government, it's best to go with this kind of a strategy.
WT: I will leave it there. Thanks for doing this.
MacGregor: My pleasure.
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