Climate change impacts on Canadian agriculture – no time for complacency

by Sophie Oliver. Posted March 13, 2013

Climate has always mattered in agriculture. Farmers watch the weather, we all know that. But are they paying enough attention to the bigger changes?

In a 2007 study of Ontario farmers, 62 per cent of respondents viewed climate change as a long-term warming trend, and 21 per cent were entirely skeptical about its existence.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report released in February 2013 — Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation — refers to this perception problem: “Social adaptation barriers represent a significant challenge to climate change adaptation in U.S. agriculture.” In other words, people are having a hard time accepting that climate change is real.

It would, however, be surprising if more recent data did not show Canadian farmers coming to understand the problem of climate change: 2009 and 2011 were major flood years in the Prairies, while 2012 saw widespread drought in many of Canada’s growing areas.

It’s worth noting that climate change will not affect all of Canada equally: it is likely to hit hardest where it hurts the most. The Canadian Prairies — home to more than 80 per cent of Canada’s agricultural land — already has experienced warming at a faster rate than the global average. The area of the Canadian plains at risk of desertification is estimated to have increased by about 50 per cent between recent conditions (1961-90) and those projected for the 2050s.

So whose head is stuck in the ever-deepening sand?

Perhaps it’s the government’s. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Medium Term Outlook for Canadian Agriculture, 2011-2021, projects a picture of continuity, with prices of grains, oilseeds and special crops remaining well above historic levels (though below recent peaks).

The catch is that the report “… assumes no impact from climate change and from policy to mitigate climate change nor significant animal disease outbreaks or unusual climatic conditions over the period of the outlook.”

Climate change is likely to hit hardest where it hurts the most. The Canadian Prairies — home to more than 80 per cent of Canada’s agricultural land — already has experienced warming at a faster rate than the global average.

Why the complacency? A host of studies from the early 2000s served to reinforce the belief that there was not too much to worry about in Canadian agriculture. Although the studies considered a wide range of outcomes, the take-home message was that climate change could be positive for Canadian agriculture. Longer growing seasons, increases in arable land and a possible shift to higher-value crops would work in Canada’s favour, enabling us to capture greater market share and, in general, to prosper.

More recently, though, that optimism has been dampened by studies showing that crops are often more sensitive to temperature extremes than to averages. So the effect of temperature on many crops has been found to involve thresholds, above which yields rapidly decline. We have also experienced more extreme climatic events and there appears to be a dawning realization that man-made climate change implies more than just a steady warming trend: it implies intense variability, specifically in precipitation. The impact on crops and agricultural production is consistently negative. Expanded agricultural area is of no benefit if the land is regularly flooded or parched.

Here is what we know we will see more of in the future: moisture stress, droughts, disease outbreaks, weed growth and soil erosion as well as higher average temperatures. A recent report issued by PricewaterhouseCoopers pours cold water on any hope that warming can be limited to 2 degrees C, a widely shared aspiration: “Even doubling our current rate of decarbonisation would still lead to emissions consistent with 6 degrees (C) of warming by the end of the century”.

With changes of this magnitude in store, this is no time for complacency. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s 2012 overview of Canadian agriculture paints a picture of a dynamic agriculture and agri-food system directly providing one in eight jobs and accounting for 8.1 per cent of total GDP. But is it prepared for what comes next? Does it have the adaptive capacity required not only to survive the climate future, but to take advantage of any benefits it may offer — even if they’re short-lived?

Federal and provincial governments are spending $8 billion annually on agriculture, but just $156 million goes into research programs — less than 2 per cent of the total spent. With so much uncertainty ahead, is this enough? Will it enable us to be ready with a flexible toolkit of responses when things change? It would be a different situation if the private sector were stepping up its own research spending, but Canada lags other countries in terms of the proportion of private money going into agricultural research.

There is much to applaud in the agri-sector. We’re seeing greater diversification and a change in farming practices to become less environmentally damaging. The 2011 Census of Agriculture showed that, for the first time, over 50 per cent of the total area prepared for seeding across the country employed the less ecologically-disruptive no-till methods.

But we need to ask ourselves if there is more we can do, both to maximize the potential of the sector (how are all those Asian megacities going to feed themselves, after all?) and to help it prepare for a very uncertain future. If the USDA is right when it says that “… continuing changes in climate conditions … (are) likely to overwhelm the ability of the agricultural system to adapt using existing technologies”, there surely we have no more time to waste.