Investing in Soils for a Sustainable Future

The Environmental Commissioner's Soil-Carbon Roundtable Report


In his 2010-2011 Annual Report, entitled Engaging Solutions, the Environmental Commissioner wrote about the untapped potential of soil carbon. It seems that our over-consumption of fossil fuels has led to an excess of carbon in the atmosphere, while our modern intensive agricultural methods  have reduced the organic matter, and hence the carbon levels, in our soils. The former is the root cause of climate change; the latter reduces soil fertility, increases water pollution, and lowers ecosystem resilience. The obvious inverse relationship of these problems, however, points to a possible shared solution. Many soil scientists believe that we can mitigate and adapt to climate change, while increasing soil fertility and reducing water pollution, by sequestering a significant portion of that atmospheric carbon in our soils. This thinking represents a unique convergence of important environmental issues around a common and too-often ignored opportunity.

Accordingly, the Commissioner brought together a range of stakeholders and experts for a one-day Roundtable, with the goal of providing participants with a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges associated with this unique convergence.

The Roundtable consisted of a series of presentations by experts, followed by small-group discussions. The invited participants came from government, academia, environmental organizations, agricultural associations, and working farms, with members of each of these groups represented at every table. The proceedings were organized into five sessions:

  • Session One, Soil Carbon and the Ontario Experience, focused on the science of soil carbon and the work to date by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) to promote soil-carbon increase in the province’s soils.
  • Session Two, Pushing the Envelope, focused on two emerging approaches to soil-carbon sequestration and soil health:  first, the application of the principles of soil ecology to agriculture; and second, the addition of biochar (charcoal) to soils as an amendment.
  • Session Three, Financing Positive Change, focused on the policy tools and mechanisms available to create incentives for farmers to adopt management practices that sequester carbon.
  • Session Four, A Farmer’s Perspective, provided the Roundtable with feedback from a working farmer on both the issues at large and on the content of the day’s discussions.
  • Session Five consisted of a full-participation plenary, where all participants had an opportunity to put forward their thoughts on the issues.

The Report of the Commissioner’s Roundtable, entitled Investing in Soils for a Sustainable Future, is available here (.pdf). In addition, videos of the presentations, integrated with the presenters’ slides, are available on YouTube (see links below, or click to watch them all in one playlist).

  1. Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario: “Introduction to the Commissioner’s Soil-Carbon Roundtable
  2. Dr. Paul Voroney, University of Guelph : “Soil Organic Carbon: Opportunities and Challenges in Ontario
  3. Adam Hayes and Anne Verhallen, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA): “Ontario: Work to Date on Soil Carbon by OMAFRA
  4. Doug Weatherbee, soildoctor.org: “The Role of Soil Biology in Agricultural Productivity and Carbon Sequestration
  5. Dr. Johannes Lehmann, Cornell University: “Biochar and Carbon Sequestration in Temperate Soils
  6. Ian Campbell, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC): “Incentives for Building Soil Carbon: Examples from Other Jurisdictions
  7. Karen Haugen-Kozyra, The Prasino Group: “Carbon Credits and Offsets – The Role of Carbon Pricing in Agricultural Systems
  8. Don McCabe, Ontario Federation of Agriculture: “Soil Carbon and Ecological Services – New Opportunities for Ontario Farmers?
  9. Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario: “Concluding Remarks at the Commissioner’s Soil-Carbon Roundtable
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