Improving Farmer Health and Food Quality by Capturing Carbon in the Soil

This project will answer the question: Do agricultural practices that capture carbon in the soil improve food quality and/or farmer health?

Globally, soil contains more carbon (1,500-2,400 PgC) than the
atmosphere and terrestrial vegetation combined. High intensity
agriculture has reduced soil organic matter by ~45% globally, with
negative impacts on myriad ecosystem services including air and water
quality. 

While soil degradation is a major issue, soil quality can be
increased through agricultural management practices that capture carbon,
such as through the use of cover crops, crop rotations, reduced soil
tillage, integration of livestock in planned grazing, use of organic
amendments, and land use conversion, among others. An increase of 0.4%
in soil carbon per year in the top one metre of agricultural soils
globally can sequester between 2-3 gigatons of carbon annually (3-4x
Canada’s annual emissions). No-till practices can increase soil carbon
storage rates from 0.05 to 0.3 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year.

Carbon storage capacities associated with different management
practices for crops grown across BC have yet to be quantified.
Connections linking climate-adaptive management practices and
farm/farmer health have been inferred but not explicitly examined. There
is no known research that quantifies the uptake of carbon-sequestering
practices by commodity group in BC at a provincial or regional scale.

This Webinar reviews research that will build a baseline that quantifies the levels of adoption of carbon-capturing soil management practices across all regions of the province, and complement this through direct testing of soil quality parameters (including organic matter levels) that draw insights into how management practices affect soil quality and in turn affect farm/farmer health.

How does capturing carbon in the soil impact the health of producers, consumers and communities?

The actions that farmers take to manage their soils impact human and animal health. Nearly 800 million people are undernourished, and nearly 40% of the world’s population suffers from micronutrient deficiencies. Approximately 97.5% of human nutrition is derived from soil, and nutrient availability for plants and human consumption is a direct reflection of soil organic matter.

Sequestering carbon in agricultural soils in the form of organic matter improves the chemical and physical properties of soil such as water holding capacity, aggregation, and macro- and micro-nutrient availability, mitigating climate-driven nutrient dilution and improving conditions for plant growth and ecosystem services. These benefits can increase the quality of food products while broadening the adaptive scope of crops and soil to climate change while reducing demand for irrigation, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other costly interventions.

Soil “health” aka soil quality is gaining traction has a public area of interest, linked to food, energy and water security, in addition to building connections to terroir. Understanding the links between soil health and human health requires multi-disciplinary research and communication.

This research will assess the nutritive content and sensory differences of products grown under an array of soil-carbon capturing management regimes.

How do soil carbon and management practices impact the health of farmers?

Farmers are on the front line of climate change, experiencing firsthand the challenges associated with increasingly volatile weather, pests, and extreme events. While the connection between soil and human health has been recognized for centuries, the focus of research to date has been limited to studying nutrient levels, chemical toxicity, and exposure to pathogens. Farmers are often lost in the focus of research, yet they are allies in the adoption of carbon-capturing soil management practices.

Both perceptions and observations drive farmers’ choices around soil management practices. Social capital in the form of relationships is increasingly recognized as a determinant of adaptive capacity to climate change for rural communities, with additional direct impacts on the mental health of farmers.

The influence of relationship diversity on the ultimate destination of agriculture food products and farmer economic and mental health are not well studied. Many farmers produce products to feed global commodity chains, while a growing subset of consumers is in search of alternative, more local sources of food. It is an open question if there is a link between climate-adaptive soil management practices and connections to different types of food distribution chains and resulting product identity for BC-produced foods.

This research will assess the profitability and optimism of farmers that adopt climate-adaptive carbon-capturing soil management practices. Also, the strength and nature of relationships formed by farmers will be assessed to determine the ultimate destination of food products produced under different management regimes, and the retention of product identity in the marketplace.

Scope: BC and Beyond

The degradation of soil quality through intensive agricultural practices is a global issue, and of immediate concern as farmers are faced with increasingly variable conditions associated with climate change. Supporting farmers to adopt carbon-capturing soil management practices is an outstanding priority for many jurisdictions, including British Columbia. 

British Columbia is a globally recognized biodiversity hotspot, in large part due to the province’s geophysical diversity. Accordingly, B.C.’s agriculture sector is also highly diversified, producing over 200 commodities on 17,528 farms spread across 14 unique biogeoclimatic zones. According to the 2016 Agriculture Census, B.C. is characterized by a large number of small farm holdings, with four out of ten farms earning less than $10,000 in farm gate receipts, more than double the national average. Over 41% of B.C.’s farms fall into the ‘small’ category. Farmers are increasingly seeking opportunities to diversify their operations and maintain economic viability while preparing for and adapting to climate change – a challenge more likely to be realized by smaller, more agile producers – typical of those in BC.

The diversity of agriculture in the province makes the development of common guidance challenging, but also positions this research to be relevant to a national / global audience. Some sectors, such as forage producers in the north, have already implemented climate-adaptive soil management practices such as reduced-tillage. BC is an international leader in agricultural climate change adaptation (regional strategies and legislative mandates to reduce emissions exist), yet critical commodity and regional data gaps remain that prevent the translation of these strategies into action in the form of meaningful and actionable policy solutions.

This research will assess soil-based crops grown in all regions of British Columbia produced by farmers that participate in the survey and direct testing of soil and food products.

Project Summary

Purpose: This research will build a baseline understanding of the practical impacts of adopting agricultural management practices that capture soil carbon on a provincial and regional scale. The results are designed to yield actionable insights for policy-makers that are also meaningful to farmers making day to day decisions about the risks and benefits of adopting carbon-capturing practices.

Research Questions:

  • How does the adoption of climate-adaptive soil management practices affect soil quality, food quality and the retention of product identity in the marketplace?
  • ·      Do farmers that focus on carbon-capturing practices sustain different relationships within the community and supply chain?
  • ·      Do these farmers experience different levels of profitability and optimism about the future relative to conventional farmers? 

Desired Outcomes

  • Healthy farmers that produce nutrient dense food on high quality soils that are adaptive to climate change, creating incentives to sequester more carbon and increase the resilience of farmers over time by improving their results relative to high-intensity alternatives.
  • ·     Practical insights that quantify the benefits and risks for farmers seeking alternatives to conventional approaches, enabling meaningful policy and practice solutions relevant to BC.

Relationships of Interest: The following hypothesis and relationships of interest will be assessed through the project:

Project Approach

A high-level summary of the research workplan is outlined in the image below. Project activities span three key streams, focusing on the capture and analysis of data through a survey, direct soil and product testing, and general project activities that lead to the creation of research findings in a final report.

High Level Timeline – Year 1

Year 2: Project activities in year 2 will mirror year one, in terms of delivery of a survey, followed by direct testing, analysis, and synthesis of results into a year-two final report.

For more information about the project approach, please contact us at: EMAIL

Get Involved: Please contact us brookehayes@uvic.ca

Understanding the links between soil health and human health requires multi-disciplinary efforts and communication. If you are interested in this project, we want to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments about the project and proposed approach, please contact us.

FARMERS: If you are a farmer in BC, there are at least three ways to participate in this project:

·     Participate in the survey: As a farmer in BC, you are critical to the success of this research! If you are a farmer growing soil-based consumer food crops, you are invited to participate in a survey to capture insights into your current management practices and supply chain relationships, anticipated to be available in the Fall of 2020. If you would like to be on our distribution list to receive updates on the project, please contact us.

·         Participate in direct testing: A subset of farmers across the Province will be invited to participate in direct soil testing, and product sampling through taste panels and nutritive quality assessment. If you would like your soil and products to be assessed, let us know! Sampling will be limited to available budgets, so spaces are limited. For more information, please contact us.

·         Review the draft survey, receive updates on the project, share insights: If you would like to review our draft survey before it goes live, receive regular updates on this project, or just want to talk to us about the issues you are facing as a farmer in the face of climate change, let us know, we are happy to keep in touch. Please contact us.

      RESEARCHERS: If you are a researcher working in this field, and are interested in the results of this work, or participating as a partner, please let us know. The scope of this project is multi-disciplinary and will benefit from the insights offered by many individuals and organizations. There are several ways that you can participate:

·      Share your findings: If you have personally conducted or are aware of relevant research that links to this project that you think would be insightful to the project team, please contact us.

·         Use our data: As much as possible, we anticipate making the datasets from this work available publicly for other researchers. If there is a specific aspect of the dataset that you are interested in, or if you have ideas about what we should or should not measure, we want to hear from you. Please contact us.

·         Review the approach and survey: The draft survey and direct sampling methodology will be posted online for feedback and review (in the Fall of 2020 and the Winter of 2020 respectively), and we welcome your thoughts and critical insights. Please contact us.

·         Support the project directly: The scope of this project is broad, but the capacity of researchers is limited. If you would like to participate directly in this project through conducting specific soil or product quality tests to supplement the research findings, we would welcome your participation and contributions to this project. Please contact us with your ideas.

·         Stay tuned: If you are simply interested in receiving regular updates on this work, let us know and we will add you to our distribution list for updates. Please contact us.

      POLICY MAKERS: If you are a policy maker thinking about options to support the transition of soil management practices in your region to shift from carbon sources to carbon sinks, or if you have experience in this area that you would like to share, we would love to hear from you.

·         Share your experience: If you have used data to support the adoption of climate-adaptive approaches to agricultural management, or have lessons learned from the field, let us know. Please contact us.

·         Review the approach and survey: The draft survey and direct sampling methodology will be posted online for feedback and review (in the Fall of 2020 and the Winter of 2020 respectively), and we welcome your thoughts and critical insights. Please contact us.

·         Stay tuned: If you are simply interested in receiving regular updates on this work, let us know and we will add you to our distribution list for updates. Please contact us.

       ASSOCIATIONS / ORGANIZATIONS: If you represent a group of farmers that are interested in this work, and are able to participate in this project, we would welcome the opportunity to collaborate.

·          Promote the project: The success of this project relies on the reach of the survey and acceptance of the project as important within the agricultural community. If you have ideas about how to make this project more relevant, or if you believe that this project is useful and that your members would benefit from participating, we need your help to get the word out. If you would like to participate, please contact us.

·         Share your experience: Policy approaches come and go, and priorities are often determined based on varying levels of understanding of the nuances of specific communities, commodities and circumstances. If you would like to make us aware of any nuances that might impact our project approach, please let us know. Please contact us.

·         Review the approach and survey: The draft survey and direct sampling methodology will be posted online for feedback and review (in the Fall of 2020 and the Winter of 2020 respectively), and we welcome your thoughts and critical insights. Please contact us.

·         Stay tuned: If you are simply interested in receiving regular updates on this work, let us know and we will add you to our distribution list for updates. Please contact us.