Agroecology as a Basis for Irrigation Strategy

By Trudy White, Iris

One would expect that any irrigation or soil improvement strategy being developed for our Island would be grounded in the most current scientific knowledge on soil health and would address the very serious issues of declining soil biodiversity and pesticides in soil, water, and sediment.  Yet this irrigation strategy discussion document does not even mention the words biodiversity or pesticides.

Science clearly tells us that protecting and restoring soil biodiversity is critical for soil regeneration and resilience and also for sustaining our water cycle.  But the document fails to mention “increasing biodiversity” even in its sections about Improved Environmental Benefits or Soil Health.

Perhaps this is because PEI currently does not assess soils for biodiversity.  The SHIP program uses a soil respiration test to assess soil microbial activity and the proposed irrigation strategy proposes this could be tied to future water permits.  But this test simply measures the amount of CO2 (respiration) released by aerobic organisms from a soil sample.  It is not an assessment of biodiversity.  Depleted soils – even those with very little soil biodiversity – still release CO2 from biological activity – that activity coming primarily from soil bacteria and pests. 

Soils that are lacking biodiversity also need more fertilizer and pesticides because their natural capacity for nutrient recycling is stalled and pests are more likely to attack stressed plants. Those soils are also more prone to erosion.  Unless actual soil biodiversity is assessed and monitored, it will be very difficult to determine if soil health is improving and use this as a condition for granting water use permits.
Also nowhere within the proposed strategy document do we find the words “reducing pesticides”.  Pesticides are designed and used to kill pests but they also kill many non-target organisms and can impact entire ecosystems.  Pesticides vary in their ability to move within soils and into ground water and streams.   Irrigation has the potential to increase the movement of some pesticides and expand their area of impact.  An irrigation strategy that does not address the use and the movement of pesticides in soil and water seems irresponsible and incomplete.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations now recommends using an “agroecology” lens to evaluate agriculture methods, policies and new technologies.  Some PEI farmers are already using agroecological methods and best practices on their farms and many more are ready to transition.  This irrigation strategy discussion document falls short oin supporting those farmers and moving agriculture in that more sustainable direction.  This is a missed opportunity.  I note that several other submissions have made excellent suggestions for how the strategy can be improved through better governance, permit requirements, and monitoring.

I believe PEI’s proposed irrigation strategy should be re-evaluated using the principles and scientific knowledge of agroecology.   If it survives that re-evaluation, it should be re-written to reflect those principals.  The future of our Island’s water and soil depend on it.

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