Wetlands Soil – The New Gold | World Wetlands Day

Feb 2, 2023 | Gary Zed, Founder & CEO, Canada's Forest Trust Corporation

I was catching up on my news last week and came across RBC’s John Stackhouse’s reflections on Davos. In his piece The MehMeh-conomy & Matterhorn-sized risk: 12 themes for a fragmented world, I was very pleased to see #8 in particular. “Soil, the new gold.”

Why so pleased, you might ask? 

Stackhouse explains that Davos sessions on regenerative agriculture were some of the best-attended, with CEOs and government leaders waking up to the fact that “…[f]arm lands are considered a leading asset for climate action, as, properly managed, they can absorb the emissions of entire sectors. They can also offset the carbon, methane and nitrous emissions that come from fertilizer and the production and consumption of food.”

Given that it is World Wetlands Day, I thought I might build on this good news to highlight the distinct value of Canada’s Wetland soil.

Let’s start with the basics.

Wetlands are submerged or permeated by water — either permanently or temporarily — and are characterized by plants adapted to saturated soil conditions. Wetlands include fresh and saltwater marshes, wooded swamps, bogs, seasonally flooded forests, [and] slough.

Wetlands cover about 13% of the land area of Canada. Like in many places in the world, we’ve previously considered our wetlands as having little value. Many have been drained and filled or significantly misused. For example, in southern Ontario, 68% of the original wetlands have been converted from their natural state to support alternative uses such as agriculture and housing. (This is partly why the Ontario government’s plan to remove lands from the Greenbelt is causing so much controversy).

The view that wetlands provide little value reflects the lack of understanding of their contribution to our planet, such as reversing biodiversity loss and decreasing the financially and socially pervasive impacts of flooding. But, with the rise of climate change and its effects on our planet and communities, those sentiments are changing. Worldwide, wetlands are the only ecosystem designated for conservation by international conventions. 

This is because they:

  • absorb the impact of hydrologic events such as large waves or floods (a powerful climate adaptation mechanism);
  • sequester and store carbon dioxide;
  • filter sediments and toxic substances;
  • supply food and essential habitat for many species of fish, shellfish, shorebirds, waterfowl, and fur-bearing mammals (improving biodiversity);
  • provide products for food (wild rice, cranberries, fish, wildfowl); and
  • are valuable recreational and cultural areas for activities such as hunting, fishing, and birdwatching.

In addition to the intrinsic value of wetlands, their worth in terms of nature-based solutions to address climate change is finally attracting people’s support for their preservation and protection.

Wetland soil is unique. 

Because these areas are submerged or partially submerged for long periods, the soil contains little to no oxygen. Without a lot of oxygen, the decomposition & mineralization of organic matter is greatly slowed. In addition to the unique ecosystems these areas develop, wetlands, in general, are a significant natural carbon sink, capable of sequestering much more carbon than other types of soil. For CEOs and government leaders looking to lower their carbon emissions, wetland soil has real-world currency.

In the not-too-distant past, Canada’s forestry industry was rough on our wetlands. 

Over-harvesting, machinery, and the construction of roads have all taken a toll. Canada’s Forest Trust Corporation (CFT) was founded on the principle that there is a better way. We take a holistic approach to forestation that goes beyond the single act of planting a tree. We are working with Indigenous peoples and innovative industry experts to rehabilitate entire ecosystems, including wetlands. For example, we are embarking on a partnership with Timmins’ Mikro-Tek, leaders in the biological practice of mycorrhizal fungi inoculation, to increase tree growth and resiliency. In brief, introducing mycorrhizal fungi protects roots and increases nutrient uptake of the planted seedling, playing an important role in land rehabilitation. 

The presence of mycorrhizal fungi in wetlands is widespread. It appears to contribute significantly to “nutrient acquisition, photosynthetic activity, biomass production, and saline stress reduction,” suggesting our wetlands have even more to teach us than previously understood, particularly in the area of soil fertility and resilience. Current climate models predict more intense rainstorms and extreme drought events, making our wetlands and their unique soil characteristics a treasure in every sense of the word.

Happy World Wetlands Day!