Canada is home to 1.29 million km3 of wetlands, which is nearly one-quarter of the world’s supply.(1) These wetlands provide homes to many species of plants and animals and are one of the world’s most productive and biodiverse ecosystems. Wetlands provide many benefits to the environment and when incorporated into farmland these advantages can increase both productivity and sustainability in the agriculture industry.
While wetlands can range from tidal, usually consisting of salt or brackish water, to inland, made of freshwater, farmers can take advantage of the latter by adding them into their marginal lands (sections of land not effective for crop production). These wetlands are great for water retention, protecting farmland from flooding by collecting rain and snow. The water collected can then be used by the farmer to water their crops or animals.
Likewise, wetlands can store large amounts of carbon. The plants the wetland supports absorb carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis and sequester it as organic carbon in the soil. This process, known as carbon sequestration, helps slow climate change by turning atmospheric CO2 (a harmful greenhouse gas), into organic carbon, which is safely stored in soil. Boreal peatlands, for example, can store 29 g/m2 of carbon every year. This is twice as much as agricultural lands and is a great way to offset emissions on the farm.(2)
The plants growing along a wetland’s edge, known as the riparian zone, also act as filters that prevent excess runoff of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen from entering waterways. When excess nutrients are added to a waterway, they can cause an abundance of algae growth, which in turn clogs water flow, uses up the water’s dissolved oxygen, and blocks light from deeper waters.(3) This is damaging to the health of aquatic wildlife like fish and can even cause the water to become undrinkable. Research shows that riparian plants can prevent damage to waterways by removing up to 90 per cent of excess nitrogen from croplands.(4) Likewise, the roots of these plants, usually consisting of grasses, trees, and shrubs, protect the farmland from any erosion what might be caused by water or wind.
This relationship between water, plants, and animals creates symbiotic benefits that improve the local ecosystem through biodiversity. The plants growing along and within wetlands give animals a habitat to thrive in, many of which are also pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and spiders. The abundance of pollinators finding nesting and foraging opportunities in the area will in turn increase the productiveness of the cropland.(5)
Despite the important factor wetlands play in the health of the planet, they have become the most threatened natural resource on Earth.(2) In fact, approximately 50 per cent of the world’s wetlands have already been lost.(2) As a result, Ramsar is celebrating World Wetlands Day on February 2nd, 2022. This call to action is an appeal for capital investment as well as human and political change to prevent the further disappearance of wetlands and encourage restoration. Agriculture has the means and opportunity to be a changing force in this movement. With all the added benefits of protecting wetlands within agriculture settings, it’s a symbiotic relationship that’s worth exploring. This February, we can stand with Ramsar and be the positive change we want to see in the world.
1 The Government of Canada—Extend of Canada’s Wetlands, 2016 https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/environmental-indicators/extent-wetlands.html
2 CAPI—The Contribution of Wetlands Towards a Sustainable Agriculture in Canada, 2019
3 USGS—Nitrogen and Water, 2018
4 Aberdeen Plant Materials Center—Plants for Riparian Buffers, 2011
5 Ducks Unlimited Canada—New Research Reveals How Wetlands Support Prairie Pollinators, 2019