Soil Degradation in Canada
Soil has always played an important role in the development of mankind. It is used to grow the food we eat, provide the foundation for the buildings we live in, support plant life, and is a key part of cleansing the earth of pollutants. Human activity has disrupted soil formation and with population increasing the pressures we put on soil will undoubtedly rise as well. The Grand River watershed is an area which has experienced increased agriculture and urbanization in a fairly small time frame. Several environmental issues have emerged from the quick development of the region.
This paper will focus on soil erosion, soil contamination, and salinization. Both the problem and possible solution will be examined. For years we have ignored the repercussions of human settlement and agriculture, now with the effects prevalent in our society we are taking notice and action, there is not time like the present to make a change. Historically, Canada was occupied by indigenous people whose lifestyle differed greatly from contemporary Western society. The Natives were primarily hunter gatherers who developed a deep and respectful connection with earth.
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Agriculture was adopted but was implemented in a way to let the earth regenerate itself by relocating crop fields annually. Plants and animals alike were treated as equals, cared for, and allowed to grow without much human interference. The Natives relationship to Mother Earth enabled them to live together in harmony. European contact in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s brought a new culture, which subsequently would be forced upon the Native people on a large scale level of cultural genocide.
To the Europeans, forest was viewed as a hindrance, much like Lockes’ view of nature as a wasteland unless put to use. Land was cleared to make way for settlements and agriculture. During the midst of European technological, social, and ideological upheaval in the 19th century a wave of immigrants fled to Canada due primarily to the prospect of cheap land. Ontarians were quick to farm the land, not being ‘mixed’ farmers they favored meadow and pasture over root crops, and had more extensive agriculture than in Europe. R. Cole Harris and John Warkentin comment on these methods, stating, “This relatively sloppy agriculture probably reflected not only Ontario’s distance from principle markets, which led to relatively lower land values and hence to more extensive agricultural practice, but also the careless approach to land that had developed in the years of wheat-fallow-farming. In 1870 as in pioneer years most Ontario farmers sough to make the most of their short-term returns, and arguments about soil exhaustion, long-term planning, or conservation fell on deaf ears. “(1974:142).
Increased urbanization and industrialization also re-shaped the landscape, furthering soil degradation. Soil erosion is a natural process brought on by wind and water. Problems arise when human interaction causes it to occur at an accelerated rate much faster than nature had intended. The loss of forested areas has given opportunity for wind to erode soil much faster and spread even farther. This becomes a problem when the productive top layer of soil, humus or topsoil, is eroded away since its rate of regeneration is extremely slow at 2-5cm’s every 1000 years.
The Grand River watershed is one of the highest agriculturally productive areas in Canada. The poor cultivation techniques used in years past has added to the erosion problem. Tilling and plowing looses up the soil allowing for more efficient oxygen transport and diminishes weeds but disturbs the natural soil formation rendering it more susceptible to erosion. Overgrazing of animals has led to the trampling of soil and loss of plant life, since the animals depend on it for nutrients, causing less coverage of soil, increasing the chances of erosion. L. J Chapman and D. F Putnam give an example of how quickly and easily erosion can occur, causing farm abandonment, stating, “Settlement began early in the Norfolk sand plains. The land was taken up rapidly after the townships were opened in 1792 to 1812, except in the wet areas. The light-textured soils, however, could not stand up to the regular cropping. As the original humus became exhausted, productivity declined and wind erosion increased so that farm abandonment became common. “(1966:252). Relocating to new farming areas only led to those areas becoming less fertile.
Contour farming is a style of tilling at right angles to the slope of the land, the ridges created hold in the water rather than allowing it to flow down eroding as it goes, this new method can decrease erosion up to 50%. Another method to help decline erosion is timing. Spring is optimal since if you plow in the fall erosion can occur all winter long. Strip farming involves planting in wide rows with other plants in between to maximize ground coverage. Many other techniques have been tried but a lot of times new problems spawn and fertilizers become the answer to those problems.
Soil contamination is either solid or liquid substances mixing in with the natural soils. Many times the contaminants attach themselves to the soil itself, spreading with erosion, other times they lie dormant between soil particles. Often when soils are poor fertilizers are brought in to promote growth but often are detrimental to the soils in the long run. When hazardous substances are either spilled or purposely buried in the soil contamination will occur. Water and rain can also pollute the soil.
In the Grand River watershed there has been heavy industrialization and in previous times companies did not have concern for the environment. Beth Dempster and Gordon Nelson give an example, Uniroyal plant, saying, “The Uniroyal plant has also produced noxious short-term emissions causing some residents to abandon their homes. The Uniroyal site has been contaminated with high levels of over 200 toxins including DDT and dioxin. In 1989 the local groundwater system, from which the town drew drinking water, and nearby Canagaguige Creek, were both found to have been contaminated. (2001:156). Cleaning up the soil is possible but is a slow and tedious process often costing a lot. The main goal should be prevention so further contamination is lessened significantly. Brian T. Bunting comments on future plants for land-fill sites to make them more environmentally sound, stating, “Clearly wide buffer zones, completely integrated drainage and leachate control systems, and adequate long-term monitoring are needed in old, abandoned and current, and future landfill sites.
Attempting their rehabilitation solely by use of a thin cover of compactable or erodible soil is inadequate. In the absence of large, established energy-from-waste facilities, the greater evil of garbage burial will provide complex problems of management and restorations for years, if not generations, to come. “(1987). Salinization occurs in dry, warm areas, where salt from precipitation or sea spray, accumulates in the soil, giving it a high concentration of salt. West of us, in the Canadian prairies, there is 37. 7 million hectares of developed agricultural land.
However, salinity is a growing problem. The Canadian government’s agriculture website comments on the seriousness of the problem, remarking, “Alkali soils. Salinity. Saline Seep. These terms, heard more and more in Western farming circles, all refer to the same problem–the presence of salts in farmland. More than 2 million hectares are affected on the Prairies, and salinity is spreading at about 10 per cent per year. It is estimated that in 1984, the growth of salinity will cost farmers more than $25 million. “(2003). Irrigation is also a perpetrator of salinity.
When soils are salty, there is a greater concentration of solute in the soil, than the roots of plants, causing water intake by plants increasingly difficult and in extreme cases not possible. Crop productivity is heavily affected, which, in areas heavily dependant upon agriculture, spawn serious problems, mainly economical. The Canadian governments plan to curb the problem, is quoted as, “Management practices that are effective in controlling the extent and degree of soil salinity relate to water management-reducing the amount of water entering the groundwater under recharge areas and maintaining the water table in discharge areas. (2003). This involves the building of artificial drainage systems in local areas, growing salt tolerant crops, reducing deep tillage, returning the manure and organic matter, and eliminating seepage from irrigation. Culmination of these various types of soil degradation ultimately results in infertile soil, often referred to as exhausted soil. When this occurs land is no longer suitable for agricultural use.
Many other environmental issues are affected by soil degradation including the water, from eroded, contaminated soil. In the 19th century Canadians became more aware of their physical geography and realized they needed to adapt in order to preserve the land. Falconer, Fahey, and Thompson remark on the attitude at this time, stating, “Adaptation to these newly perceived characters and processes can be seen on all scales in the agricultural geography of southern Ontario.
In improved crop rotations and the greater emphasis on manure, shelter plantings and woodlots; in the areal specialization of agriculture; in the abandonment of large areas; and in the establishment of Algonquin Park; in these, one discovers portions of the adaptive “strategy” of the latter part of the nineteenth century. ” General et al. (1974:17). In contemporary society conservation is still an area of importance with newer technology bringing fresh ideas and methods to preserve our land.