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Peace Region Living Labs Kick-Off Keynote Recap

It was an absolute pleasure to be invited to share my passion for soil health with producers from across the Peace region at the Living Labs kick-off event on Thursday, August 11, 2022 in Fairview, Alberta. At the request of participants, I wanted to pass along some of the sources of interesting facts that were shared, and provide a recap of what we talked about for those that were unable to attend.


A kick-off is never really the start of something new, but a milestone in a process that started long ago, a process that often requires the collective energy of dozens or hundreds of individuals that agree to do something new together. This project is no different, and the effort required to get to this point was tremendous. The project is unique however, in that it creates an opportunity to move food production from beyond a strictly economic proposition to one that values people, places and products. Congratulations on reaching this milestone.


Kick-off events are inherently hopeful moments in time, and with a planet in trouble, it gives me hope to see soil at the centre of solutions imagined by this group. You don’t have to look far to see signs of the complex, systemic challenges faced by producers and consumers today. Increasingly extreme environmental and economic conditions create new risks and uncertainties in our food systems, and adapting to these unexpected changes is hard, especially when so many are so heavily invested in the status quo. Infrastructure, policies, and practices have been directed for decades towards the goal of maximizing efficiency for global markets, which has helped to feed a growing population, but also has created hidden costs to ecosystems and human health (Sage 2012).


Soil is the start of the supply chain, and making changes right here, right now could have ripple effects through all parts of our food system and perhaps create benefits that extend to ecosystems and communities alike.


Imagine the earth, and then imagine that it took you a year to drill a hole to the centre of the earth. How long do you think it would take before we pass through the top layer of soil? Matthew Evans in his book “Soil”, estimates it would take 0.74 seconds to travel through the thin soil layer of the earth. And this layer holds more than twice the carbon of all plants and the atmosphere combined (Brady 2019).


Soil carbon is a proxy for all kinds of good things that tell us about the healthy functional status of our soils. Soil carbon is transformative, it helps to hold water, cycle nutrients, increase aggregation, filter toxins, moderate changes in temperature and pH, and increase biodiversity (Brady 2019). Soil carbon is a good thing, and we have lost a lot of it through erosion due to land use change and agriculture.


Soil erosion keeps me up at night. The loss of soil is happening at rates that feel so astonishing (75 million tonnes per year) that they feel beyond my capacity to understand. Helpfully, Evans (2021) calculates that every meal costs each person on the planet 20 pounds of soil. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has said that at the current rates of soil erosion, there are only 60 harvests left before there is nothing left to plant into (FAO 2015). Seven years has passed since this report was released. Even worse, Montgomery in his book “Dirt” (2012) clearly identifies erosion of soil as the precursor to the fall of many ancient civilizations. First goes the soil, then goes society. I can’t think of anything more important than this project and its efforts to restore soil health in a world out of balance.


Soil inspires and humbles me daily. Here are just a few things that have transformed my understanding of and personal relationship with soil:


Humans share a staggering 80 per cent of our DNA with fungi (Zeng 2001).


Fungi are more closely related to animals than plants, and they communicate with a vocabulary of 50 “words”, in the form of electrical impulses, packaged in “sentences” that are on average 6 pulses long – the same average number of words in a human sentence (Adamazatzky 2022).


Amoeba, the so called “lowest form of life on earth” consume 10,000 bacteria a day (Shi 2021), and are absolutely breathtaking when you meet them in the microscope.


There are estimated to be over a million species of nematodes on earth, and only a few cause problems. Nematodes live for 5-7 years, and represent 80% of all multicellular life on earth. There are 60 billion nematodes for every human on earth, and if you stretched them end to end they would travel all the way to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri and back. That’s 8 light years! (Evans 2021)


Soil breathes. Only half of what we stand on is mineral, the other half is a combination of water and air (Brady 2019). Some 70 per cent of atmospheric methane moves through the soil, and there are bacteria, called methanotrophs, that feed on methane as fuel. These bacteria are more common on soils grazed by animals, potentially changing the conversation about animals and climate change (Abell 2009).


A single seed can carry 9000 unique species of organisms – each seed comes pre-packaged with up to two billion individual fungi, bacteria and archae (viruses) that it needs to survive when it hits the ground (Evans 2021). These organisms are genetically adapted to survive in the environments where the seeds were produced, reinforcing the need for locally produced seeds that grow well in these regions.


Soil is busy, noisy, and worth understanding as a powerful partner in production.


It’s not easy to be a producer today. Producers face unique pressures in their roles, driven by increasing costs, declining supports (extension, rural social services, etc.), variable yields, consumer pressure to reduce costs, increasing regulations, and a changing community structure that has seen the average age of farmers increase while the number of farms and farmers decreases. I recently contributed to a pan-Canadian review of policies for rural areas, and 76% of the plans, programs and strategies we found made little to no mention of the unique needs of rural areas in their approaches (Krawchenko, 2022).


Even without these emerging pressures, farming is already a tough profession. In my field work last summer visiting 36 farms on Vancouver Island, I heard from farmers about the isolation involved in their work, along with the stigmatization they feel from their community, pressures of legacy, stress from the 24/7 nature of their jobs, and the fact that where they work is also where they live and where they play. Farmers can’t take a holiday if they are overwhelmed and need a break. Resources are scarce and often only address the symptoms rather than root causes at play. The result of this cocktail of challenges is of national concern.


A recent report of the Canadian Standing Senate Committee on Farmers’ Mental Health (2019) found that 58% of Canadian farmers meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder, 48% suffer from high stress, and that 35% meet the criteria for depression. Suicide is common and under-reported. Farmers are excellent problem solvers, but there is only so long you can exist in survival mode.


I recently left a government career because I became genuinely worried about health of farmers in the face of a changing climate. I was worried that government wasn’t in a position to move quickly enough to respond to the criticality of the issues at play, and so I set out to work directly to restore soils and farmer health here and now. My PhD research focuses on the relationships between soil health and farmers health. The premise I am investigating is that healthy soil rich in biology provides a benefit to farmers that are in physical contact with this soil, in the same way that good gut health provides a protective benefit from chronic inflammatory conditions including mental health issues. If there is a biological relationship between soil health and farmers health, we can expand the arguments in favour of capturing carbon in the soil from a strictly economic perspective, and begin to consider farming as a pro-health endeavour more broadly.


To restore soil and farmer health, I believe we need to approach this project with hope, agency, and dignity.


Hope is more than a simplistic word or fanciful idea. Hope is a biological imperative. Not only is hope a sanctuary from despair, but hope is associated with decreased rates of depression, cancer, pain, and improved sleep and stress management (Kelsey 2020). I’d ask you to reflect on the reason you decided to participate in this project. I bet that reason is rooted in the idea of hope for a better future. What is your vision for a hopeful future? Is your soil healthy right now? Could it be healthier? What would it mean for you if your soils were healthier – in terms of your health, your labour, your costs, your yields, your family and your community? Hope is like revolutionary acupuncture – hope can drive beliefs and actions that have the power to subtly shift the entire system towards balance.


Agency is all about power. Those that have it and those that don’t – how it is used or not used. Agency is central to how change happens. Agency is embedded in our practices, narratives, behaviours, worldviews and beliefs. What factors in your life do you feel you have control over? What factors have control over you?


Changing practices that you have relied on and believed in for years takes humility, and this project offers the chance to take back small footholds of control that can perhaps begin to fight back against increasing costs, declining yields, fragile supply chains, and increasingly extreme economic and environmental events. The alternative is to get more committed to our original beliefs. In practice this rigidity creates division, and often shows up in practice as “getting louder”. The choice is yours.


Dignity is all about respect, and typically reflects the idea of something or someone being above, below, or equal to something or someone else. Dignity is a part of how we work with and treat each other. All too often, research is extractive. You’ll certainly be familiar with the idea of an “expert” being sent in, someone that collects information, and often doesn’t share back the findings of their work in a way that feels reciprocal. Luckily, this isn’t always the case. In this project, you are recognized as the experts in your business, your soils, your ecosystems and your communities. This project will of course need to collect data to share with others, but the fundamental premise is that you and other producers in the region are the primary beneficiaries of information arising from this work. In this way, this project can rebalance relationships between soils, communities, people and places.


All of the right ingredients are here at this important moment to make this project a success. The right place, the right people and the right resources are here at the right time.


The Peace region has long been recognized for its leadership in the adoption of practices that build soil health. Something is already shifting here. An agricultural adaptation strategy has identified the key climate risks, and it is time to put theory into practice and see what the real benefits of these soil-health building practices can bring to producers in this region. This work builds on the decades of experience, creativity, resilience and intelligence of those of you that have already been at this for awhile. Thank you for your work.


The right resources are here. Long term funding means that you have a chance to truly see how new practices translate to on-farm improvements over time. The researchers are here too, and many of them have been here for a long time. These relationships are an asset. This work is being approached in a way that provides hope, dignity and agency to everyone involved, and in a way that especially privileges the experiences of producers, and recognizes the need to balance data collection with the return of practical insights to the broader community.


After working in government for twenty years, I know how hard it is to push forward programs that place control in the hands of others, and I recognize that these efforts take time and are hard won inside of a system that can sometimes be slow to shift. This is an important opportunity, and we need everyone involved to make this work at scale.


Commodification, globalization, and a dedication to efficiency have negatively impacted ecosystems, and fractured consumers relationships with the places and the people that provide their food. Communities are suffering, and producers are in a precarious situation, under intense pressure to respond to global risks. I believe that soil health is the axis upon which a return to healthy ecosystems and communities can occur, and a mechanism to move food production from beyond an economic proposition to one that respects and values people, places and products.


Collective rituals and community participation can amplify and transform hope into reality. The stories we tell ourselves and each other matter. To create a different future, we need to live in a different present, one that I see happening right here, right now, with the right people and right resources.


Thank you for the opportunity to learn more about what you are doing, and for the opportunity to contribute in some small way to its success.


This summary reflects the opinions and ideas solely of the author. Please feel free to reach out with any comments, thoughts or questions to brookehayes@uvic.ca.


Further Reading and References:

Abell, GCJ, Stralis-Pavese, N, Sessitsch, A, Bodrossy, L, (2009). Grazing affects methanotroph activity and diversity in an alpine meadow soil. Environ. Microbiol. Rep. 1:5, 457-465. doi.org/10.1111/j.1758-2229.2009.00078.x.


Adamatzky, A, (2022). Language of fungi derived from their electrical spiking activity. R. Soc. open sci. http://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.211926.


Brady, N. C., Weil, R. R. (2019). Elements of the nature and properties of soils. 4th Ed. Pearson, New York.


Evans, M, (2021). Soil: The incredible story of what keeps the earth, and us, healthy. Murdoch Books. Sydney.


FAO and ITPS, (2015). Status of the World’s Soil Resources (SWSR) – Main Report. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, Rome, Italy


Kelsey, E, (2020). Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think Is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis. Greystone Books.


Krawchenko, T., Hayes, B., Foster, K. and Markey, S. (2022). What is rural policy today? A pan-Canadian scan of policies for rural places, Canadian Rural Revitalisation Foundation.


Masters, N, (2019). For the Love of Soil: Strategies to Regenerate Our Food Production Systems. Printable Reality, New Zealand.


Montgomery, D, (2012). Dirt: The erosion of civilizations. University of California Press, Berkeley.


Montgomery, D, (2017). Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life. W.W. Norton & Co. New York.


Sage, C, (2012). Environment and Food. Routledge. New York.


Shi, Y.; Queller, D. C.; Tian, Y.; Zhang, S.; Yan, Q.; He, Z.; He, Z.; Wu, C.; Wang, C.; Shu, L. The ecology and evolution of amoeba-bacterium interactions. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 2021, 87, e01866– e012022, DOI: 10.1128/AEM.01866-20.


Singh, BR., McLaughlin, MJ., Brevik, EC, (eds) (2017). The Nexus of Soils, Plants, Animals and Human Health. Catena Schweizerbart, Stuttgart.


Zeng Q, Morales AJ, Cottarel G. (2001). Fungi and humans: closer than you think. Trends Genet. 17(12):682-4. doi: 10.1016/s0168-9525(01)02498-2. PMID: 11718906.


Mental Health Resources for Farmers and Producers


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