Both opportunities and challenges exist when the agriculture community considers the next several years of climate change impacts
By Jackie Clark
When we talk about climate change and agriculture, we often hear that opportunities may exist in Canada, with an extended growing season, and the capacity to produce much more food than we consume domestically.
Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, outlined some of the challenges of that perspective in a webinar titled The Climate Effect: Securing Canada’s Food Supply, hosted by the Globe and Mail on Jan. 28.
“From a temperature and rainfall perspective, pretty well anywhere in northern Canada that has the soils suitable for supporting agriculture could actually become farmland. So that sounds like a great opportunity,” Fraser explained. Advancements in plant breeding are also allowing for crops to be produced in a shorter growing season.
However, there are “two very serious cautionary notes,” he said.
First, “if we start imagining pushing that northern edge of agriculture north, the impact on biodiversity from clearing land, the impact on downstream water pollution from soil erosion and the impact fundamentally on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions from that land-use change, going from forested land and wetland into agriculture, would be enormous,” Fraser explained.
The second concern has to do with First Nations and Indigenous governance, he said.
Talking about expanding the northern frontier of agriculture in Canada gives the “problematic illusion that no ones living up there … and of course nothing could be farther from the truth,” he added. “Anything that happens in the north has to be driven by Indigenous communities and northern communities.”
The agriculture community must “be very careful then about both managing the environment and the social issues before we get too carried away about farming up north,” Fraser said.
Another important consideration at the intersection of climate change and agriculture, is the source of most of the fruits and vegetables we eat in Canada.
“California is running out of water,” Fraser said. “From an environmental and climate change perspective, is it resilient for Canadians to be reliant so much on southwestern USA for our fruits and vegetables?”
Though Canada produces an excess of food in terms of calories, most of that production is in commodity crops like corn and soybeans, or livestock production. We know that fruits and vegetables are critical for health and disease prevention, Fraser said.
However, “we chronically underproduce fruits and vegetables,” he explained. “It’s probably vulnerable to have so much of our fruit and vegetable sector to be coming out of that California area.”
To address this problem, “I think we will, over the next five to ten years see a radical shift” to more technologically sophisticated growing facilities in or near Canadian urban centres, Fraser said. “It’s pretty exciting and it’s also very disruptive.”
An opportunity exists in more urban, vertical, high-tech agriculture to shrink the environmental footprint of growing food and improve Canadian food sovereignty, he explained.
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