B.C. farmers need region-specific strategies amid climate change, says expert

2021 was a year that tested B.C. farmers like no other. Wildfires, a heat dome, and catastrophic flooding created major challenges at a time when the sector was already facing economic challenges.

The extreme weather conditions could, according to one expert, result in higher food prices at the grocery store.

Dr. Sean Smukler, a professor at UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems, says it’s time governments start making decisions on whether or not the province will need to import food.

“What it really takes is investment,” he said. “Without support from an infrastructure development at a more regional scale, when we have these big events, those on-farm changes aren’t really going to matter so much.”

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Smukler also suggests the federal government develop incentives or support for B.C. farmers to build their own on-farm infrastructure.

However, he says he is most concerned about the size of investment needed to ensure that our agricultural industry stays viable beyond the next couple of decades.

Regional strategies

Smukler’s research, which provides B.C. farmers with actionable analysis, is partially funded by the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture lab.

“The main thrust of my research is to really help farmers better understand and adapt to climate change, but also to reduce their impacts on the environment, particularly their impacts on the climate,” he said.

Considering many farms in B.C. — a province known for being a wet region — are in “low line lands that are often saturated,” Smukler says farmers can start to implement solutions to keep water away from the farm fields.

“They can install drainage, they can level their fields, they can ditch their fields. These are all things that are well-known that farmers can do to help manage too much water on their farms,” he explained.

“The effectiveness of things like drainage depends on regional connection to getting that water not just out of that particular farm, but out of the region. You can’t just have the water go to the neighbouring ditch, and at some point, it comes back. So it’s important that we have a functional drainage system across the region.

“But then when you have a flood, that regional drainage system can’t compensate for that amount of water. You have to have infrastructure in place to really prevent that water from reaching the farm field. So we’re talking about much more sizable infrastructure than just what’s found on farms.”

Cost of groceries could become harder to predict

Smukler is urging the province and federal government to have a clear idea of the type of agriculture industry it wants to have in B.C.

“Do we want one that is local? One that’s sustainable? One that we actually know and interact with the farmers in our community? If that’s the case, we really need to provide those farmers with support or some idea of what level of support that we’re going to ensure,” he said.

“If we can’t commit to keeping the floodwaters back, we need to make that clear to the farmers in the region and what the risks are, and how likely those risks are going to come to fruition. And then they will be able to make a decision as to whether they continue to farm in the way that they are now or if they choose not to continue.”

If governments don’t decide, he warns the result will not be pretty.

Sylvain Charlebois with the Faculty of Agriculture at the Dalhousie University says right now, the country expects delays and higher prices for many imported products.

“For most imported goods, it’s been a challenge logistically to get any products into the country — let alone food,” Charlebois said.

“To actually move things around the world, it’s been costing more. So we are expecting different commodities to be more expensive … that do come from abroad: oranges, kiwis, pineapples, vanilla, coffee as well. So things that we don’t produce in Canada at all we’re expecting higher prices.”

However, for processed ingredients like cocoa and chocolate, Charlebois says prices aren’t spiking since there is a lot of supply.

Smukler is urging people in the province to prioritize buying locally because it directly supports B.C. farmers.

“If we don’t support local agriculture, we’re likely to see increasing food prices. And more than that, increasing volatility of those food prices. So it’s one thing to try to budget for an expensive grocery store visit, it’s another thing to budget for one that fluctuates from month to month, year to year. And then it basically puts us at the mercy of how other regions are developing their adaptation strategies.”

He also calls on people in the province to vote with climate and agriculture in mind.

“This is a crisis that is probably like none other because it’s such a slow-moving one. And the people in office today need to be making decisions that are going to have impacts 20, 30, 50 years down the road. And it’s a tough thing for politicians to really make those kinds of decisions without the support of the people at that are voting for them,” Smukler said.

– With files from Angela Bower

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