Canada as a Major Player in Global Solutions to Food Security and Climate Change

Sunday, November 29, 2015

On the cusp of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, Ottawa saw a two-day symposium to discuss Food Security in a Changing Climate on Nov 12-13, hosted by the Canadian Climate Forum (CCF).

It proves to be an important time for change (and adaptation).

In his introduction, Dr. Thomas Pedersen, Chair of the CCF, made it clear that climate change is already affecting food security around the world. With 2014 being the warmest year in recorded history, it becomes evident that climate change will affect agriculture in a variety of ways around the globe. Agriculture is truly at the centre of the climate change discussion.

With a rise in floods, droughts and unpredictable weather patterns, adapting to a changing climate has become the centrepiece of discussion at many agricultural tables. With record flooding in Southern Malawi and the California drought now in its 4th year, effects on agriculture production are already apparent (e.g. almond prices). Global impacts are not just weather-related, but also economic: a record heat wave in Russia in the summer of 2010 caused a 30% grain crop loss that forced Russia to impose a temporary ban on exports, resulting in a jump in prices.

Though agriculture is certainly a major contributor to climate change, it can also be an important part of the solution.

Agriculture – Adapting to an Uncertain Future was the symposium’s first session, with Ron Bonnett, President of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, as the first speaker. Bonnett, an Ontario farmer, began speaking to the wide regional variations in weather patterns that farmers are facing.

Generally speaking, Canada has become wetter and warmer in recent decades with precipitation patterns changing. Warmer winters can result in less pest die off, and overall warmer weather increases the potential for new diseases and pests that have not previously been problematic. To keep pace with the increased demand for food, Bonnett reminded the crowd that farmers will inevitably need the right tools in order to ward off such threats to food production.

However, the same challenges that come with a changing climate are bringing immense opportunities to Canada. With warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons, agriculture productivity in Canada actually stands to increase due to climate change. As the rest of the world will not share this gain, Canada faces an opportunity to play a larger role as an exporter to maintain global food security.

One hundred years ago, a farmer produced enough food for 10 people. Today, each farmer feeds over 120, and will need to do even more in the future.

It was said repeatedly that increased productivity in agriculture will be an efficient way to reduce our impact on the climate. Innovative methods, research and techniques have certainly already surfaced: .e.g. no-till cultivation leaves more carbon in the soil. Bonnett also referenced bio-digesters, a greening technique that the Town of Caledon has already set their sights on.

Author and economist Jeff Rubin also recently discussed on The Agenda how climate change could bring great financial benefits to Canada. In particular, a longer crop growing season caused by climate change could make Canada the “world’s bread basket” and an “agricultural superpower”.

Of course, the issues are complex and don’t work in isolation: it’s not just about climate change. A combination of policy decisions, weather impacts and other forces create these situations, and the forum aimed to connect these multiple influences.

Dr. Hans Hurni, Founder of the Centre for Development and Environment in Bern, Switzerland, explained that climate change is one of many factors that need to be included in looking toward a sustainable future. With a focus on land use, Dr. Hurni discussed the need to take into consideration the many farmers that live off of small-scale subsistence farming. You can not improve or transform systems without cooperation from land owners, Dr. Hurni said, and there are economic, social, political and environmental factors to consider.

Robert Sandford from Canmore, Alberta, one of Canada’s top water researchers, honoured the International Year of Soils , highlighting how resilience cannot exist without strong healthy land and soil: “water, food and climate security are inseparable”. We must prioritize best practices, and not only pay farmers for crops, but also for sustaining our land and soil. Sandford declared that keeping carbon in our soil could be one of man’s greatest priorities, as carbon-rich soil helps to prevent flooding.

Anne Hamill, Director of Resilience of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, offered a reminder that resilient food systems are critical to the achievement of food security. Research into techniques like drought-tolerant seeds are important, but resilience is more than that. Processing facilities, for instance, face issues of their own. The entire value chain must work together to ensure adaptation occurs along the chain and resilience is built into every link. Hammill used Uganda’s coffee value chain, which has been impacted by climate change, as an example. A lack of connectedness between actors and the varying impacts they are facing only adds urgency to the issue. Through Uganda’s experience, Hammill showed how adaption is crucial along the entire value chain.

The distinguished medley of Canadian and international speakers covered a significant amount of ground, air and water in two days. The thinning, younger Arctic ice, aquatics and possible changes in fish distribution, and food waste were just a few of the many other explored issues.

The CBC has also featured the CCF event, sharing Ontario Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray’s thoughts: “We have some real challenges because our economy doesn’t naturally lend itself to good, sustainable decisions in food,”  Murray told his audience. “And this, I think, starts the need for a continental food security strategy.” Furthermore, Murray shared, “We depend on imports for a lot of food we could produce here … So I think talking to the agriculture and food sector here would be critical.”

With plenty to learn and consider, a growing interest in these discussions is a necessary step in the right direction.

Amidst the abundance of research and projections, it seems as though one thing is clear: Canada is in a fortunate position. And here in our Golden Horseshoe there are many farmers eager to contribute to resilient food systems while acting as stewards of our land and soil. Their work is essential to our future.

Robust solutions will require an integrated approach, an openness to learning and adaptation, a real drive to mobilize action, and, of course, a steady eye on the future of the planet.