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Adapting agriculture to a changing environment

A bison stands on a slope

These remarks were delivered to the Senate committee on agriculture and forestry regarding the potential impacts of climate change on November 2nd, 2017.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you.  I have three key messages for you today.

The first is the importance of enabling farmers to adapt to changing environmental conditions. A tremendous amount of research shows that in some cases, farmers are able to deal with even extreme droughts where in other cases, agricultural systems are extremely sensitive to slight perturbations in rainfall and temperature. Therefore, there is a role for government to create incentives to promote resilience and adaptability. I have personal experience in this regard and I remember a drought hitting our family farm in Niagara when my grandfather was still healthy and I was still working with him. That year, the ground became so dry and crumbly that the sweet corn fell over and so my grandfather and I dragged irrigation pipes around the farm and worked our way carefully through the fields holding each plant up and buttressing it with a small hill of soil.  When I returned to help my grandfather harvest the corn that year, I was amazed that the yield was normal. We had adapted. We were resilient.   10 years later, however, a similar drought hit the farm but by that time I was working on a Master’s degree at the University of Toronto and my grandfather was in his late 80s.  That year, the corn crop fell over and there was no harvest, no resilience. This little anecdote, illustrates how the way farmers react can make all the difference in terms of whether climate change is a big deal or not.

Luckily, there are a lot of ways that policy can help improve resilience in face of climate change. For instance, we can incentivize breeding programs- both for plants and animals-that promote heat tolerance, drought tolerance and pest tolerance.  My colleague Dr. Bonnie Mallard won a Governor General’s innovation award this year for her dairy breeding work and is currently working to identify cows with a tolerance for hot, dry conditions and then use advanced genomics technology to breed those traits into our herds. For much of the 20th century, breeding programs for both plants and animals focused on boosting yields at the exclusion of traits such as resilience.  But by shifting government funding programs to support research into climate resilient crops and livestock, then by explicitly engaging in public-private partnerships with input suppliers, we can provide farmers the genetic tools they need to create more resilient systems. Similarly, we can also create incentives for farmers to use ecological principles to improve the resilience of their farms.  Creating incentives to encourage crop rotation and other conservation practices help because they build up the amount of organic matter in the soil, which is important because organic matter acts like a sponge, trapping water when it is abundant and saving it for when it is needed.

For instance, I’m aware of former tobacco fields in Ontario that are now planted with perennial wild flower and grass mixes that provide ample pollinator habitat, help build up the soil’s organic matter and produce a steady stream of very high quality beef for Ontario consumers.  These farms are proven to be productive in years even with extremely little rainfall but giving farmers the incentive to make this transition requires cash. The farms I’m referring to receive a $150/ha cash incentive through a program called ALUS that is funded through the Weston Foundation.

I would urge the committee to consider policies that will improve both the resilience of our farm systems at the genetic level as well as policies that will encourage farmers to use management practices that build resilience.

My second key message to you today pertains to the potential that climate change may create opportunities for agriculture in the North.  Without any question the Earth’s climate is warming and as it does so it will likely restrict agriculture in the tropics but may have the added benefit of increasing the amount of land suitable for crop production in the North. Scientists working on this topic call the development of new land “agricultural frontiers”, and work that I have been involved over the past two years suggests there are millions of hectares of land in northern Canada that currently are not farmed but may become suitable due to climate change. This idea of developing these Northern frontiers has started to catch people’s imagination and I’m aware of a number of industries that are interested in setting up agriculture in the North, as well as this becoming a topic of policy development in Canada’s territories. While fully cognizant of the importance of creating economic opportunities in Canada’s North, I’d like to use this opportunity to raise a cautionary note that Northern soils are extremely fragile and are huge reservoirs of carbon.

Work that I have been involved in, which is currently under review for publication, suggests that if we end up clearing land and draining wetlands in the North to make way for crop agriculture then we will result in massive carbon dioxide emissions that will destroy Canada’s ability to maintain its commitments to the Paris Accord. This doesn’t mean that agriculture can’t happen, or that development can’t occur in these areas. For instance, maybe instead of wheat fields, we should consider extensive production of bison or caribou with very deliberate marketing to sell this product to discriminating international markets.

My second point, therefore, is to urge the federal government to engage in a consultative and participatory process with Indigenous and Northern Communities to imagine what kinds of food could be sustainably produced in a culturally appropriate way in Canada’s north.

My third key message pertains to the opportunity for innovation and technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Agriculture is on the cusp of a digital revolution and the same technologies that brought us the Internet and are transforming medicine are just now being applied in our barns and on our fields. The modern generation of smart tractor knows where it is in the field and plants the right seed in the right place and gives it the right amount of fertilizer. The technologies presented by “agriculture 4.0” offer us nothing less than the promise of the ability to produce more food on less land with fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Since agriculture is already responsible for a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, developing technologies to meet the needs of the growing human population while reducing greenhouse gas emissions is vital.

At the moment, however, this digital agricultural revolution is in its infancy both in Canada and globally.  When it comes, the digital agricultural revolution is going to be a “big data” revolution that will be making use of the tremendous amount of data collected by modern farm equipment that includes everything from smart tractors to robotic milkers to drones and remote sensing data. But today, farmers are drowning under all these data and do not yet have the decision support tools, the dashboards, the software apps to really make use of the technology.  One of the reasons for this is that it is practically impossible at the moment to actually access and make use of all of the data in a consistent fashion and turn it into useful insights to farmers. To have a smart tractor really do its job of planting the right seed in the right place and giving it the right amount of fertilizer with no waste, then the tractor has to work with field level data including soil maps, weather station level data from Environment Canada, and all the way through to remote sensing data collected from our satellites. This sort of data integration simply isn’t happening yet. I think this represents a golden opportunity for Canada to show real leadership.

I would urge the Federal government to consider developing and establishing protocols pertaining to data sharing, data ownership, cyber security and data access that would apply across the entire sector and help make Canada a leader in agricultural technologies that will enable us to produce more food with fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

I would like to conclude by saying that I believe this is a golden moment for Canadian agriculture. This opportunity was recognized by Dominic Barton in the Advisory Council for Economic Growth’s report from earlier this year.  With the kinds of recommendations I’ve outlined in this brief talk, I believe that the Canadian farm sector will be able to not only become more adaptable to extreme weather, it will also reduce its greenhouse gas emissions while building new export markets by demonstrating to our trading partners that our food is the most sustainably produced in the world.  Similarly, we will develop a secondary export markets to sell climate friendly agricultural technologies to our trading partners.

Although climate change creates real challenges in terms of maintaining global food security, with the sorts of proposals I have outlined here, I am confident that our sector will be able to take advantage of Canada’s unique position in terms of its abundant land base and sophisticated workforce and become one of the world’s most important contributors to global food systems in years to come.

Thank you very much,

Evan Fraser, PhD

Director, The Arrell Food Institute

Canada Research Chair, Dept. of Geography

Fellow, Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation

Fellow, Royal Canadian Geographical Society

Member, Royal Society of Canada College of New Scholars