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Environment drives new generation of soils research

Indian Head, Sask.,
March 23, 2007:

Far from being a mature field of study, a renewed interest in the environment is revitalizing soil science, say soil researchers across Canada. That complements dramatic progress in soil conservation at the farm level over the past several decades.

A series of feature articles released through the national Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC) Web site, looks at the shifting focus of soil science research across Canada.

"There are still many environmental issues that involve soils," says Dr. Dan Pennock, a professor of soil science with the University of Saskatchewan. "Areas such as soil organic matter, contamination by petroleum exploration or the role of soils in greenhouse gas mitigation are major fields of study. So even with well established soil conservation techniques, there are many question that need to be answered."

Much of the environmental research around climate change has soil science at its core, says Dr. Brian Amiro, Head of the Soil Science Department with the University of Manitoba. "The ability of the Canadian ecosystem to take up carbon really falls under the area of soils science. For example we do research on boreal forests and tundra, on release of nitrous oxide and on the effects of forest fires – all with the health of the soil as a baseline."

The emergence of agro-forestry as an agricultural crop is also a relatively new concept, he says. Research into how soil health affects forest yields is directly related to capturing carbon.

Much of the current soil science research today looks at the effects of ranching and farming on the overall environment. This is a fundamental shift in soil sciences thinking, and part of the reason that research has become so multidisplinary.

"We rarely work alone anymore," agrees Dr. Joann Whalen, a professor at McGill University. "We are called on by other research areas all the time." She says the biotech industry and the energy-based research also has a soils-based component. With the increase in interest in bio-fuels, soil can be seen as the medium to grow that industry, with crops as the end product that could help ensure energy security.

That group-based effort is able to take on areas that have a meteorological, microbial, physical, chemical and biological aspect to them. It can look at how to transform plants into new and interesting non-food products such as ethanol, bio-plastic, bio-chemicals.

"There is much ongoing environmental research in which a healthy soil base is needed," says Dr. Gary Parkin, an assistant Professor with the University of Guelph. "Here our research teams track microbes using DNA, we look at the impacts of GMOs on soil characteristics. We look at planting poplar trees over finished landfill sites to reduce contamination."

A team-based approach to soil research is also contributing to environmental and agricultural solutions in developing areas of the world as research into areas such as air quality and carbon emissions link at a global level help offer a greater understanding of why conserving soil health is important. To meet the demand, scientists in different disciplines are tackling environmental issues from a soils science perspective.

SCCC is the face and voice of soil conservation in Canada. A national, non-governmental, independent organization, it was formed in 1987 to provide a non-partisan public forum at the national level for soil conservation. Using a grassroots approach combined with the scientific, technical and practical experience of its members, it works with government and private industry, individuals and non-government organizations to address soil degradation and facilitate exchange of information across Canada.

For the full stories and more information on the Soil Conservation Council of Canada, visit the SCCC Web site at

For further information, contact:

Doug McKell, Executive Director
Soil Conservation Council of Canada
Indian Head, SK
Ph.: (306) 695-4212
Jean-Louis Daigle, Executive Director/Directeur général
Eastern Canada Soil and Water Conservation Centre/
Centre de conservation des sols et de l'eau de l'Est du Canada
DSL Saint-André (Grand Falls), NB E3Y 2X9
Ph.: (506) 475-4040