6 March 2023

In Canada, science and traditional practices help protect soil health


A University of Saskatchewan project aims to create soil health workshops with Native communities and farmers. By encouraging input reduction and diversification of crops and landscapes

by Matteo Cavallito


Improving soil health by fostering the circulation of knowledge on the subject from traditional knowhow. That is the goal of a project sponsored by the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, funded by the Weston Family Soil Health Initiative, a five-year, $10 million local effort to adopt best ecological management practices. The program is aimed at increasing organic matter, biodiversity and resilience to external factors in the country’s lands.

The Canadian university’s initiative aims to develop “land-based training workshops for First Nations communities, land managers, and producers who farm First Nations lands ,” says a statement by the University.

A knowledge network for soil

Designed to support soil health promotion activities, Weston’s program provided funding for eight projects. Among them, the initiative led by the local university represents a novelty. The goal, the foundation explains, is to create the first network of “land-based training workshops with First Nations land managers and the farmers on beneficial management practices that can improve soil health, including crop diversification, reduced inputs and landscape diversification.”

This will allow knowledge on soil health to be shared from both a traditional community perspective and a Western scientific perspective focusing on the Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba prairie region.

“Our project will expand soil science training beyond the walls of the university—alongside teachings of Indigenous ecological knowledge—onto lands that are of significance to the First Nations we are in partnership with,” said Melissa Arcand, professor in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the same university. Arcand will work together with some technicians from Mistawasis Nêhiyawak, an autonomous area managed by native communities that includes 12 reserves.

The importance of traditional practices

Widespread among Native communities around the world, the use of traditional agricultural practices has been gathering broad institutional recognition for the past few years. In late 2021, for example, the White House released a memorandum “that commits to elevating Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge in federal scientific and policy processes.” Also relevant is the FAO‘s expressed support for agroecology, the discipline that studies the application of ecological principles to agriculture.

And which, as noted by UC Berkeley professor Miguel Altieri, a Chilean agronomist and entomologist and one of the doctrine’s leading exponents, represents a meeting point between traditional knowledge and modern science.

One example comes from Vanderwagen, U.S., an unincorporated community in McKinley County, northwestern New Mexico, where Spirit Farm, a farm devoted to regenerative crops that has been mixing Navajo farming practices with the latest knowledge about the role of soil microorganisms for nearly a decade. By applying some ancient techniques, the farmers say, it is possible to encourage an increasing presence of beneficial fungi in the soil.

In Canada 62 million hectares to be protected

Today, in territories inhabited by Canadian Native communities, conventional agricultural production prevails. The communities, however, are striving to apply ecological management methods to the land to protect biodiversity, the university note further explains. The so-called “learning circles” on soil health envisioned by the project will share results with the promoters of “Bridge to Land Water Sky,” another initiative to develop climate mitigation agricultural solutions run by local communities.

These programs aim to produce nature-based solutions that can be replicated across the country. “Agricultural lands represent 154 million acres of the Canadian landscape and Canadians should be increasingly concerned by the rate at which our agricultural soils are deteriorating,” explained Michael Bradstreet, chair of the Weston Family Soil Health Initiative external advisory group and former senior vice president for conservation at Nature Conservancy of Canada. “We have an opportunity to address the gap in Canada by helping to mobilize the sector to increase the adoption of soil health improving practices.”