Future food: Conserving diversity for climate resilienceSeptember 29, 2019
The future of food will be dictated by climate and weather patterns that will be different than any farmers have yet experienced, and which are now unpreventable.
Originally published on The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation’s blog.
Climate change will affect different geographical regions in different ways, but the common factor is that the weather will not just be warmer; it will be more variable and unpredictable.
Everyone has noticed that summer storms seem more frequent, more violent, and harder to forecast. Farmers are seeing greater variation in the first and last frost dates that dictate the length of the growing season. Unexpected droughts and floods are affecting food prices. These are not just warning signs; they are very real challenges that threaten an agriculture system built on an industrial assumption of predictable conditions.
Most of the world’s deserts are in two bands on either side of the equator where atmospheric currents draw water from the ground. A warming earth means stronger air currents, making deserts bigger, and wiping out farmland. Massive losses of arable land and water sources could force enormous migrations from subtropical countries, making current and previous refugee crises look like mere rehearsals for the calamities to come.
In North America we will probably see the deserts of the southern U.S. encroach into the agricultural heartland, and permanent drought conditions in adjacent areas such as California. Higher summertime temperatures will reduce wheat production in the northern U.S. and Canada by as much as 10 per cent. Although average temperatures will be warmer, we will not necessarily reap benefits from longer growing seasons, because the fluctuations of highs and lows will happen faster.
A century ago most farms grew a mixture of diverse crops, making their local food systems resilient to unexpected events. Seeds were saved and passed from generation to generation. Each growing season plants gain intelligence about their environment, the climate, and the practices of the farmers who grow them. This intelligence becomes wrapped up in the genes of the seeds and keeps plants adapting to changing conditions year after year. Diversity and local adaptation are critical for climate resilience.
Over the past century we have seen a rupture in the passing of knowledge and seeds in many communities, and an over-emphasis on specialization, yield, and uniformity in the name of optimizing the mechanisms that get food from farms to our tables. Although many Canadians enjoy unprecedented access to cheap food, the system is set up on a precipitous series of dependencies that neglect biodiversity, environmental, and human well-being.
The vision for our work is for communities to have greater self-determination in the food they eat. The future of food rests with farmers who conserve crop diversity, develop new diversity, and ensure the genetic resources we need for climate resilience are publicly accessible. Our job is to listen to, learn from, and support these producers, and build cohesion across sectors and geographies. Our vehicle is The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, a collaboration of farmers, researchers, civil society, government, and industry partners building a resilient seed system through participatory on-farm research, training, convening, market development, and support for public seed collections.
Across the country we see vibrant networks of organic growers and local seed producers who stand in the yawning gaps left by the industrial food system. These networks are growing. The values-driven organic sector that was once marginal has become an important economic driver with social and environmental well-being as a firm part of its mission. It is possible to deliver good yields without sacrificing biodiversity, nutrition, and equitable returns for farmers. Smallholder farmers still feed the majority of the world’s population. Their knowledge and leadership remain the key to feeding the world in a growing season gone mad.
Who should we be watching for inspiration, ideas, vision about the future of food?
We should pay attention to movements that link social and environmental justice, and also celebrate and learn from the visionary approaches being tested on the margins of mainstream civil society efforts.
What is your comfort food?
Jane and Bob agree that caesar salad and greek salad, locally-grown, very large and preferably from a diner, are the most comforting and necessary foods.
Jane Rabinowicz is executive director of SeedChange.
Bob Wildfong is executive director of Seeds of Diversity Canada.