Farming & Climate Change

Here in BC we are already feeling the effects of climate change. One example, mountain pine beetles are devastating BC’s pine forests; the beetle larvae used to be killed off when the winters were colder.

Currently global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG’s) are about 39 billion metric tons per year. Just over 25 percent of that or nearly eight billion tons is contributed by the transportation and fuel sector, including petroleum production and refining. Climate scientists warn we need an 80 percent reduction in GHG’s by 2050 or we’re toast. The BC government has committed to reducing their GHG’s by 33 per cent by 2020 and by at least 80 percent by 2050.

Al Gore has done a brilliant job of raising awareness around the issue with his Inconvenient Truth blockbuster, but he has not yet linked up the industrial food system and global warming. And there are many connections. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change reports that the global industrial food system from farm to fork and how we manage the waste accounts for 33 percent of the GHG’s we humans create. The livestock sector contributes about one fifth of the world’s emissions – more than the entire transportation sector! Industrial farming as a whole emits about two thirds of the world’s methane. And the overuse of nitrogen-rich fertilizers, half of which leaches into streams, rivers and oceans, dumps about two billion tons of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. Chemical fertilizers are responsible for about three quarters of the U.S.’s nitrous oxide emissions!

Then there’s the methane produced from the animals crammed into factory farms, both from their digestion and their poop. Farm animals generate 130 times more poop than humans according to the World Watch Institute! Methane is 20 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2. It’s these excess greenhouse gases that cause global warming and if we don’t reduce our emissions drastically, scientists and experts say the droughts, floods, hurricanes, pest infestations, rising sea levels and other plagues and pestilence will only get worse.

And speaking of gas: petroleum fuels industrial farming. It runs machinery, powers buildings, is a key ingredient in chemical fertilizers. And then there’s the transporting of all that food, including processing it in another country and then shipping it back. Our food travels about 2,500 km to reach our dinner table. But with peak oil prices, eating papaya salads in winter may no longer be feasible because airfreight may soon be a thing of the past. Restaurants that have gotten on board with local food may be in a much better position to survive. Westerners may have to learn to eat not only locally, but also seasonally.

Temperature changes are already affecting the crops we grow. According to a 2007 report by the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment (NECIA), berries including cranberries will be hardest hit and Concord grapes could be completely wiped out. Already untimely frosts, droughts, floods and fluctuating temperatures are affecting these crops in the northeast. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that “stop and start” winters reduced the fruit size of cranberries by one-third in 2007 and the blossoms on grapes and blueberries were decimated. Scientists also worry about salt-water incursion from hurricanes and warmer temperatures mean the growers are battling more disease and pests. Erratic climate change may mean growers have to switch to warmer temperature varieties or ideal growing zones will be relocating further north. The province of Quebec has already surpassed Maine as the largest producer of wild blueberries.

BC is the second largest producer of highbush blueberries in the world with 12,000 acres of farmland in production yielding approximately 63 million pounds annually. BC cranberry farmers pump out 84 million pounds of fruit annually, approximately twelve percent of North American production. BC is the largest producer of cranberries in Canada. Most of the BC grapes are grown in the Okanagan Valley for the now celebrated local boutique wine industry. But berry crops are also being adversely affected by erratic weather here. According to Mark Sweeney, a berry specialist at the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, the variability and extremes in temperature are causing significant problems.

“Raspberries like moderation, they can’t take the extremes of heat and moisture that we’ve had in the last four years,” he says. The other berry crops are vulnerable to extreme weather events too.

Farmers are coming up with solutions though. The organic farming movement is on the rise. Organic farmers reduce the use of machinery and therefore their dependence on fossil fuels too by working with nature to create a more balanced growing environment. They use “cover crops” during winter or fallow seasons to inject more nitrogen into the soil; trees and shrubs create wind buffers and wildlife habitat; interplanting of crops helps confuse and deter pests; mulching and more efficient irrigation methods make for healthier plants that can withstand periods of drought.

Organic farming does away with toxic chemicals too. Farmers use alternative pest control methods and amend their soils using natural sources. They make their own rich fertilizers by turning plant materials and animal waste into compost. Composting also lowers emissions because it keeps the food and other organic waste from going to the landfill.

In Lynden, Washington, one farmer invested 1.2 million to install an anaerobic digester, a composting system that converts methane from cow manure into 300 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power 180 homes. What comes out the other end, so to speak, is a potent, natural liquid fertilizer and a dry fibre that can be used as a peat substitute or bedding for cows.

Climate change could well mean stricter water management for farms too. Overhead sprinkling has been the irrigation of choice by large conventional farm operations, but some are now switching over to drip irrigation. These systems are installed just below the ground surface allowing water to slowly seep out of leaky hoses and direct moisture to the plant roots. They not only conserve water, but keep leaves and fruit dry. That cuts down on fungi and pathogens, inhibits rot and other moisture induced maladies, thereby reducing pesticide use.

Governments are now looking at farms as potential “carbon sinks” that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and fix it in the soil. There are already some programs in place in both Canada and the U.S. to compensate farmers for good ecological land use. Our provincial government is also encouraging farmers to invest in alternative energy systems such as geothermal, wind, solar and biomass (growing crops for fuel, hopefully not food crops when weeds or hemp can do the same) which can reduce their costs and help produce energy for the province. But so far they haven’t backed up their encouragement with bucks.

Many farmers are also selling closer to home these days, at the farm gate or farmers’ markets. And they are diversifying, offering farm tours, cooking classes, or producing gourmet products to sell in their on-farm stores. By making their living at home, they are no longer contributing to the GHG’s produced by transporting food around the world.

One Reply to “Farming & Climate Change”

  1. Spring,

    At home, I’m now concentrating on crops that are sure to produce, especially with little rainfall. My new favourites: garlic, fava beans (fall planted), potatoes & zucchini (heavily mulched).

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