Agriculture is responding to climate change

Warmer oceans and retreating glaciers are being felt at the 
farm level, but farmers are always moving forward

The following presentation won senior division honours in the Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture competition at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto last month.

A rise of 0.8 over 130 years… Why are we paying attention to such a number? Why does it even matter?

Because this rise of 0.8 C is affecting the way the world is fed! From the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta to the soybean fields of Argentina, things are changing. Floods are more frequent and droughts more severe.

Here in Canada, agriculture is at the forefront of climate change. Higher temperatures are the root cause of increased pest populations in the East and lower water availability in the West.

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Good afternoon honourable judges, ladies and gentlemen, fellow competitors and guests.

Climate change is also about extreme weather. And extreme weather makes the apple trees of Nova Scotia more susceptible to bacterial infection. This was seen in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Arthur in 2014 when winds of up to 110 km/h lashed the Maritimes for several days, leaving thousands of apple trees in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley with broken limbs. This exposed them to foreign invaders such as fire blight, a disease that deteriorates the structure of the trees.

According to the Crown corporation Perennia, approximately 90 per cent of all Nova Scotia orchards were affected by the disease in some way after the storm. The only option farmers had to stop the spread was by removing infected limbs or entire trees. Such actions added up to the removal of approximately 10,000 apple trees, while many thousands more were reduced to mere twigs jutting out of the ground. This caused severe financial stress on farmers, losing thousands of newly invested dollars put into high-production trees such as Honeycrisp and SweeTango varieties.

The higher frequency of tropical storms and hurricanes like Arthur is directly connected to the global temperature rise of 0.8 C, specifically over the ocean. Rising ocean temperatures cause an increase in the intensity, frequency and duration of storms, which is measured by the PDI index. According to the research data of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the PDI has sharply increased over the last 40 years, with a spike in the past 10 years.

So going into the future — as we face temperature changes beyond 0.8 C — farmers in coastal regions can expect to see more storms like Arthur. There’s no way around it. So it is our duty in the industry to adapt practices, such as breeding fire blight-resistant apples such as the Enterprise and the Jonafree. This way, the Nova Scotia fruit industry can remain competitive and productive in the future.

In my home province of Alberta, we’re facing the consequences of climate change as well.

In the southern region, precipitation is already a limiting factor for production. Irrigation is truly a saving grace for farmers, opening new doors to crops like corn and sugar beets that help diversify the agricultural economy. But with rising temperatures, water availability is a primary concern for producers, especially when mountain run-off is occurring earlier and glaciers are retreating rapidly. This is troubling because these sources supply more than 60 per cent of the water in southern Alberta’s primary irrigation region.

In response to these changes, irrigation technology is becoming more efficient in three main ways — reducing seepage in delivery, evaporation in application, and field run-off in absorption.  Excellent examples of this are the increased use of pipes in water delivery (compared to open air canals) and application with low-pressure centre pivot systems (which increases efficiency by 130 per cent compared to gravity-fed flood irrigation). Thanks to continued co-operation between the 13 irrigation districts of the province and the Government of Alberta, advancements like these augment field productivity in the face of adverse conditions.

So climate change is negatively affecting Canadian agriculture, threatening us with extreme weather, pests, and disappearing water resources.

But the people of the agriculture industry are not bowing down to these threats. We are rising to the occasion with scientifically driven innovation such as improvements in the irrigation sector or the development of fire blight-resistant apple varieties in horticulture.

Every day we are moving forward. Together we will be ready to face the rise of 0.8 C today and beyond in the future.

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