New podcast episode: Soil health in Alberta with Sukhwinder Singh

EPISODE 5- Soil Health in Alberta

Why should soil health matter to you? Come learn about soil health in Alberta with Sukhwinder Singh! We talk about the state of soil health in Alberta and Canada and how policy could be used to protect soil health.

For more information on soil health check out these resources:

Thank you, Sukhwinder Singh, for making this episode possible.



Host: You’re listening to the Land Use Podcast, brought to you by the Alberta Land Institute. 

Sukhwinder: Soil is closely connected to life, both human and animal. And it provides food, obviously, to all the living beings on the planet. When we die, we become soil. Soil degradation in Canada is causing huge economic loss, but very few people are paying attention to it. The soil is a living resource, and it is finite, so we cannot take it casually. 

Host: Hi there and welcome back to the Land Use Podcast. I'm your host, Aysha Wu with the Alberta Land Institute and today we’ll be learning about soil health. 

Soil health is inextricably tied to sustainable agricultural practices and should recognize the knowledge of the indigenous peoples who have farmed these lands, their ancestral home, for centuries. The University of Alberta is situated on Treaty 6 territory, the traditional lands of First Nations and Metis peoples whose histories, languages and cultures enrich our communities and are a valuable resource in our journey towards more sustainable agricultural practices. 

Sukhwinder Singh is joining me today to discuss soil health in Alberta. Thanks for joining me, Sukhwinder. How are you doing? 

Sukhwinder: I'm perfectly fine, and thanks for inviting me to this podcast. 

Host: Yeah, it's great to have you. Could you introduce yourself and tell us about what you do? 

Sukhwinder: Yeah, I'm actually an environmental sustainability researcher and I did my PhD from University of Reading, UK. And last year I was working with Alberta Land Institute managing the soil health initiative, and we conducted a workshop on soil health, and I wrote a resource guide for urban growers in Alberta. So that's what I did last year. Now, we're doing a very interesting thing: we're writing a book on history of organic farming in Canada.

Host: That's so interesting. How's it going so far?

Sukhwinder: Yeah, it would be an oral history book. So I'm interviewing some people from the institutions – like organic institutions – like COG, OFC, COTA and EFAO in Alberta and IN Ontario. So that is very interesting because it's a wonderful thing to learn about the journey of organic systems in Canada. 

Host: It's such an interesting topic and we’ll  just have to look forward to reading that when it comes out. So just jumping right back into soil health here, so it's my understanding that soil health as a concept kind of came out of soil quality in about the 1990s. Does that sound about right? 

Sukhwinder: Yup. Because sometimes some people confuse it and sometimes people just use it interchangeably. Because, when you talk to the farmers, they talk about soil quality because soil quality is largely connected with production – to productivity, you know? They consider that if soil is producing well, that means soil is – soil quality is fine. But, when you talk about the researchers, talk with researchers or maybe other people who are not directly connected with production of the crops, they think the soil quality is more of a living – you know – is fundamental physical, chemical, biological properties of soil. 

Host: Yeah, right. Like not just as a tool or something, but like a whole living system and everything. 

Sukhwinder: Yeah, as a human we– particularly, like, when we die, we become soil. Soil is life. 

Host: Yeah, that's true. The whole circle of life.

Sukhwinder: So it is like we have the capabilities to do anything, and we get some ill effect from what we do, or the other people are doing – the same way soil is affected by the activities, not all the activities, but the other activities [that] are closer to that soil, you know?

Host: So then I guess soil health has kind of been around for 30 some years, but it seems like it's a very popular topic today. Do you have any idea of why that is?

Sukhwinder: I think there are three-fold reasons for this. First of all, I think we all are connected to soil indirectly or directly because we are coming from countryside, you know? And being a farmer’s son, when I see myself as a child, I have been very close to farming and soil. And so, in my country, in my region, we consider soil as mother, water as father and soil as teacher. This is fascinating because all people – we as human beings – are connected to soil and food production and we come from countryside. That's one. But we should acknowledge that this soil is a living resource and it is finite.

Host: Right. 

Sukhwinder: So we cannot take it casually, although soil has inherent abilities to treat itself and overcome shorter detrimental effects from farming and environment. So, particularly, coming to this question why soil health is so popular, firstly, as I said, like we are emotionally connected to soil. That's why we always want to talk about soil health. Soil is closely connected to life, both human and animal, and it provides food, obviously, to all the living beings on the planet. And, in fact, there are [more] living organism in one bowl of soil, then the number of people on the entire planet. 

Host: Wow. 

Sukhwinder: Yeah. So, soil provides food, purifies water, protects us from flooding and, obviously, you know, combats drought. It helps us tackle the effects of climate change, as well because it stores the carbon, and we cannot think of food security without having healthy soils. But unfortunately, in the recent past, like the green revolution technologies or modern technologies used in farming somehow started mining of our soils in many parts of the world. In the wake of producing more food per unit of land, we farmed our land more intensively which gradually started eliminating the soil living organisms which are responsible for its fertility. 

Host: How much are Albertans aware of in terms of soil health? 

Sukhwinder: I'm not sure because when I talked to the farmers, they are. But not of the general public because I have not seen general public talking about it. But farmers, obviously, the non-government institutions, researchers are much aware of what is happening on the ground. 

Host: So not necessarily your average Albertan, but farmers would be the most educated on the topic of soil health. So then what would you say some of the prominent perspectives are from farmers in Alberta. 

Sukhwinder: So overall, I think Alberta has good quality soils that are very diverse in nature because of the topography of the land here in Alberta. I read a report in 2016 – it was published in 2016 by Clearwater and Hoppe. It is a Canadian government report which is on the trends in soil health in Canada. They developed a soil quality compound index – it’s called SQCI – which is a weighted average of basically three indicators, soil erosion – which is very common in Alberta, and soil carbon metal – which is the CO of soil health, and soil salinization. And the good news is that as per the overall long-term trends, the soil health condition in Canada has improved between 1981 and 2011. The risk of soil erosion index increased from 65 to 84 in 2011 which indicates that there's a reduction in soil erosion overall in Canada, which is largely attributed to reduced tillage, basically. As per the Statistics Canada, the land area under no-tillage seeding increased from 7% in 1991 to 56% now 2023.

Host: Oh, awesome. 

Sukhwinder: Yeah, the similar trends we can find in Alberta. So the other second indicator for this index was soil organic carbon, which has drastically improved in Canada from 48 to 74 in the same year. The third indicator is soil salinization, which is more common in arid regions like Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba – the prairies, you know. In these regions, after heavy rains, what happens, water table rise and soluble salts travel to wet soil surfaces. And these salts remain on the soil surface after soil water evaporates due to high temperatures during summer. 

The trends of improving soil health, particularly in the Canadian prairies, can be largely attributed to the adoption of no-tillage practices, I believe, reduced summer fallow use and more cultivation of high residue crops, like alfalfa, that require low tillage. Mainly soil degradation is very common problem in most farms in every part of the world, I believe, within a varying degree, obviously. A major reason for this degradation in soil erosion, both from flooding and wind. According to Professor David Lobb, who works at the University of Manitoba – I met him in Toronto – he say that soil degradation in Canada is causing a huge economic loss but very few people, including farmers, are paying attention to it. According to him, soil erosion accounts for 10% yield loss. It's just use. So it is believed that soil erosion is potentially caused by our traditional tillage practices. In fact, tillage delays or plowing in farming is considered very common, you know, very nice thing, but it has more recently been recognized [as] one of the biggest contributors to soil degradation. The good news is, Alberta emerged as a leader in adopting no-tillage practice and started sewing directly into the soil. So that is the good thing about Alberta – that farmers are aware and now they're adopting no-tillage practices. 

Host: So some progress is definitely being made, but what other tools are available to help deal with soil erosion? 

Sukhwinder: Yeah. Maybe no-tillage and then, maybe, trying not to keep the land fallow. You know, if you keep the crops and it helps with two ways: one is you keep the carbon inside, and then you have the cover crop. If the crop – the land is covered always, erosion will be less. So because we cannot control the wind, we cannot control the rain, yeah, we have to have to maybe increase the water holding capacity of our soils and keep the soil covered so that the effect of wind– extreme wind and flooding can be controlled and minimized. 

Host: So it's mainly been individual farmers that have been getting educated and been taking action to protect soil health in Alberta. And it sounds like from your workshop there really wasn't any comprehensive government policy to protect soil health. Has there been any change on that front that you know about?

Sukhwinder: No, I have not seen any change till date because, when I was talking on some platforms – for instance, it’s an organization called Rural Roots to Climate Change – I was just very straightforward with them that, why we are investing money on discussing these things at different platforms? And we are duplicating the efforts. And we feel happy that we talked about the soil health but, ultimately, unless there's a change in the policy, nothing will change. 

Host: So then it’s pretty much just been all talk and, unfortunately, not really any action so far from the government. 

Sukhwinder: No, I did not see much, although I'm not aware of those changes, but I have not seen that happening much. Because that cannot happen until all these institutions – farmer organizations come together to discover the issues at one platform, and then they form a committee that can go to the policy makers. Because policy makers have a deaf ear. They need some noise. 

Host: You need someone to get their attention and bridge that gap, right? So hypothetically then, do you have any thoughts about what kind of policies would be effective? 

Sukhwinder: I think the first important thing is to understand what the policy is. My workshop was primarily conducted on understanding what the policy is currently on the ground and what are the practices are being at the farm on the ground. And If we understand that – what is happening – and what government wants us to do, then we can realize where are the gaps and ,now, what to bridge. So we actually don't know what to bridge. So that is a big trouble. But definitely governments are aware of climate change; governments are aware of soil degradation, and other ill effects of environment on farming, 

Host: Right. 

Sukhwinder: But the trouble is the sectors. It's important to understand that what is happening, what is affecting what sometimes is part of it all. You need to understand the cause and effect relationship and then see changes in the overall performance of the sector. For instance, Datacom Ag has 5000 soil samples. Most important – I think, from my talk – the one-line take away is – I always say – ask the soil first, then the others. We need to test the soils first. That is most important thing. For example, if I go to a doctor and I don't say anything and he gives me the medicine, what is the purpose of that medicine if I don't say anything? So we don't ask the soil. We should test the soil and then decide what to do with it. Do we need fertilization? Do we need nitrogen? Do we need whatever the other we are giving to our motherland, you know? It’s important to understand what exactly is required. So probably, in Alberta and even in all prairies, there’s a lack of soil testing facilities and it's not widely tested. And then you can always – when you test the soil, then you can associate those farm animal practices with that, and to understand that: what if affecting what. Like, for instance if soil health is bad, then food quality would be affected. If the farm animal practices are not good, then soil will get affected. 

So it’s both way. You have to understand what is affecting what first, and then, maybe, the second part would be if we – because when you test the soil, you become partnered with the farmers – I believe that all the farmers' land can be converted into living labs and we can conduct experiments there. They would be very happy to give their land, and we would be conducting experiments every six months there to understand the relationship between what soil health is, how it changes and what type of farm animal practices are required to make the constant, consistent changes in soil health. 

Host: It sounds like it probably wouldn't make a lot of sense to have, kind of, a blanket policy on soil health in Alberta and that it might be a little bit more case by case? 

Sukhwinder: Yeah, because Canada as a whole and Alberta as a province is not small. And more fascinating thing about soil is: soil is not politically divided. 

Host: Yeah, that is true. 

Sukhwinder: Because when you see any country, they divide because of their administrative reasons, politically, you know? But soil’s a solid unit. It can be very small unit, it can be very large unit: can be 100,000 acres one unit and can be, maybe, just one acre one unit. So depending on the unit of that soil, you need to understand what is required here. If you are giving the same medicine to each patient,what is the purpose? 

Host: Yeah, yeah, exactly, 'cause it doesn't acknowledge the differences in, you know, region, climate, biodiversity. 

Sukhwinder: Yeah and the second thing is, topography is different. You have low rain somewhere, you have high rain somewhere, somewhere is dark soil, somewhere is gray, somewhere is not very good, somewhere it is very with high organic matter – so it depends. You cannot give one sentence or one type of policy to everyone, you know? 

Host: Yeah, of course that makes total sense. 

Sukhwinder: Yeah.

Host: So kind of changing topics here just a little bit, In your community resource guide available on our website, you focus a little bit on urban farming for anyone who's looking to get into any kind of urban farming. Is there anything specifically that you think they need to know about soil health? 

Sukhwinder: Yeah, maybe, that I highlighted in my report is they are fascinating about soil, they want to grow food – that's very good thing – but the main trouble is they’re too busy to understand that– that what exactly soil is and how to produce food. So we – maybe government or institutions like the University of Alberta or Alberta Land Institute, they can propose some training programs for that, just to make them understand you have the resource first and you should not waste it, and then how to use it – how to use that. For, sometimes as an individual, you don't take initiative to, you know, to start something. But as a community you do it because other people are having better knowledge than you and you just follow because in agriculture it’s not – we shouldn’t – we don't need all leaders. We need followers as well.

Host: Right. Yeah. Absolutely. That's kind of all of my questions for you. But is there anything else you wanted to add before we wrap up here? 

Sukhwinder: Obviously the most important thing, which I always emphasize, is the soil testing. And the government should be funding those projects where people who are organizing these events are connected to farmers – associated with farmers and they know the practices being practiced on the ground and how they can change the policy, or fine-tune the grand policy system. 

Host: Yeah for sure. So on our website we have the community resource guide that you made and a report of the Soil Health Workshop. Are there any other resources that you would like to recommend to anyone who wants more information on this topic? 

Sukhwinder: Yeah maybe on soil health, probably there are some databases like Datacom Ag’s website: it’s called DIRT. That is very good because it is having 5000 soil samples and going to test all. Yeah. So that is very important, yeah. 

Host: Great. Well, thank you so much for joining me, Sukhwinder. I really appreciate it. 

Sukhwinder: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.Host: And that's a wrap on our episode about soil health. If you want to learn more, you can click on the link in our description to learn about Sukhwinder’s soil health research, which was funded in part by the Alberta Real Estate Foundation (AREF). I'd recommend reading Sukhwinder’s Community Resource Guide: Sustainable Healthy Soils in Alberta, and the Soil Health Workshop report. If you enjoyed the episode, leave a like and a comment. Feedback is welcome. Make sure to subscribe for more and, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, X and LinkedIn and thank you again for tuning in to the Land Use Podcast.