The Hill Times | Farmers fighting climate change, at home and abroad

April 15, 2020

Farmers everywhere are on the frontlines of climate change. Our global food supply depends on their success. The rest of us can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines.

Ian and Linda Grossart (left and right) speak with University of Manitoba researcher Michelle Carkner (centre).

By Jane Rabinowicz

FIRST PUBLISHED by The Hill Times: Mar. 23, 2020 | See original article here.

When Linda Grossart checks the new organic wheat varieties she’s breeding after each instance of “weird weather,” she hopes to find they fared better than the rest of her crop. For the Brandon, Manitoba farmer, the land where she and her husband conduct this breeding trial represents the frontline of their fight for their farm’s future.

It’s a fight that is taking place all around the globe. Isidora Garcia, in the mountainous Yoro region of Honduras, is dealing with increasingly intense hurricane seasons wiping out her corn crop just before harvest. Salif Gonde, from the Sahel region in Burkina Faso, is battling to prevent the desert from creeping across his once fertile farmland. The planet’s temperature is rising, and erratic weather is the new normal. Water dries up in some places, floods increase in others. Unseasonal thaws cause germination problems, and entire crops are lost to early snows.

Everywhere, this translates in farmers living increasingly on the edge.

Isidora Garcia, a farmer in Honduras

Between 2005 and 2015, the Insurance Bureau of Canada’s severe weather insurance payments more than tripled over the previous decade, from an average of $373-million to over $1.2-billion in annual costs. The U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that Canada could lose 13 per cent of its GDP by 2100 without significant global action.

If we’re going to have any hope of avoiding this fate, we need to make agriculture more sustainable and more resilient.

First, agriculture-related emissions have to come down significantly. Food systems at large are usually estimated to generate 30 per cent of global emissions. The most recent data from the Government of Canada indicates that crop and livestock production alone generates 60 megatonnes of C02 a year, 8.4 per cent of the country’s greenhouse emissions. A large portion of emissions comes from fossil fuel intensive nitrogen fertilizers—fertilizers that have become increasingly necessary to sustain yields for crops that are ill-adapted for our changing climate.

Linda, Isidora, and Salif are using a different approach to guard against falling yields: working the seeds. They’re part of a global movement of farmers who are building on traditional breeding techniques to help crops adapt to changing conditions and produce better harvests without carbon intensive inputs. It’s adaptation and mitigation all at once.

They are supported by an organization called SeedChange, which works with farmers in Canada and around the world to support and spread sustainable agriculture.

SeedChange, formerly the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, is one of the country’s oldest charitable organizations. Under the leadership of Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova, it dealt with many of the 20th century’s greatest famines. With time, the organization developed an expertise in farmer-led seed breeding and seed banking, to help vulnerable communities buffer their food supply against crisis and shock.

Now, the organization uses those same tools to help farmers cope with climate change. For example, the wheat, potatoes, oat and maize trials conducted by farmers like Linda and Ian Grossart through SeedChange programs are creating varieties that perform just as well without conventional fertilizers and are adapted to each farm’s specific conditions. In Honduras, Isidora Garcia and her community built on their Indigenous maize to release new varieties that have higher yields and shorter, sturdier stalks—a trait that helps them withstand harsher hurricane seasons.

Organizations like SeedChange are only one part of what must be a broader scale effort. Canada has an important role to play in this fight.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation must be at the heart of the next Canadian Agricultural Partnership, set to be rolled out in 2023. That starts with supporting producers in adopting low-input, low emissions practices and recognizing soil’s critical role as a carbon sink.

We also can’t afford to ignore the leadership role we must play in building sustainable agriculture around the globe.

It is an encouraging first step to see this acknowledged in the mandate letter given to the Minister of International Development Karina Gould, which calls for additional programming to better support women’s rights and climate adaptation through sustainable and equitable agricultural production.

What we need now is for the federal government to commit resources to mitigation and adaptation in agriculture, at home and globally. We need to see a call for collaboration and ideas on how to best support global farmers as they work to combat climate change and preserve our capacity to grow enough food.

Farmers everywhere are on the frontlines of climate change. Our global food supply depends on their success. The rest of us can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines.

Jane Rabinowicz is executive director of SeedChange.