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How are Canada’s top conservation farmers faring through COVID-19?

It's a tough question, but an associate professor at the University of Guelph is asking it

“In Canada, we have a lot of opportunity because so many people own their own land,” says Phil Loring. It gives us an edge over other countries. But will we exploit it?

Phil Loring, associate professor and Arrell Chair in Food, Policy, and Society at the University of Guelph has his eye on a question that’s been getting little attention so far, but may turn out to be crucial in shaping the direction of our agriculture over the next decade.

Loring wants to know: How are the farms that have been investing in soil quality and sustainability doing in the face of COVID-19 compared to “average” farms?

In an agriculture with tight margins, if COVID-19 shows that investing in sustainability increases the risk that the farm family will lose their farm, it won’t take long for the message to spread.

That’s doubly important because it’s almost guaranteed, he says, that adapting the farm to climate change and to the threat of future pandemics is going to take a strategy of long-term investing, above and beyond just surviving for tomorrow.

Change is coming, Loring believes, as do most scientists, but it isn’t exactly clear when it will come, or exactly how.

The danger he sees is that tight margins will force more farmers to focus on quick fixes rather than on the long-term solutions like building soil quality that most scientists think will prove essential.

Loring sees another risk too.

“In Canada, we have a lot of opportunity because so many people still own their land by comparison to farmers in the United States, where much more land is rented,” he says.

“But if there are farmers that are not resilient enough to cope with these changes, and they sell or lease their land, the incentive is different … it’s just a real estate investment.”

That makes it even harder for anyone to justify long-term improvements compared to short-term fixes.

“We could head down the other trajectory where the current trends continue, and we make only small changes, get the new technology, get the better fertilizer, and do the things to keep eking out the production as long as we can.”

On the food front, there has been a lot of positivity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic so far, and Loring believes it bodes well for the challenges people will face — with farmers at the forefront — when it comes to climate change impacts.

“We’ve seen a great example of how, in our food system, it’s more than just about producing food, it’s about so many different aspects of our community, society and how we relate to each other,” says Loring. “It’s about every single job, education, immigration, conservation, how we support community and not just put calories and nutrients on our plate. We’ve seen interesting things where people have retooled, and innovated, and tried to do creative things to keep food on our plate, support people, support restaurants that have closed, and community shops. We’ve seen a lot of creativity and if we can harness that, I’m optimistic.”

With COVID-19 understandably taking everyone’s focus over the past months, are we all forgetting about other imperatives, especially climate change?

“Climate change doesn’t go away because we’re busy thinking about something else,” says Loring.

Loring doesn’t believe the farm and food sector are deliberately ignoring the issue of climate change, but instead many of us are taking a pause to re-evaluate a lot of things about our lives, about society and the environments we live in that are totally relevant to the issue.

In fact, because COVID-19 is teaching us that we actually can rethink all sorts of things we never thought we’d have to rethink before — everything from whether we shake hands to how we travel, work and play — it’s also making more of us think that we really could take on the big changes that might be required to slow the rate of global warming.

“Yes,” says Loring, “we are in the middle of dealing with a major pandemic, so that has taken away our ability to have climate change and reducing the emissions of our agricultural systems as the main topic on the news, but I don’t know that that’s a thing to criticize; I think that’s just a thing to learn from.”

Shining a light on the vulnerability of food systems

Conceptual change is already underway on the farm, with growing interest in different models like regenerative agricultural practices. “They’ve had to adapt to all of the stresses that COVID-19 has put on production, distribution and supply chains, and they’ve done so remarkably well in many cases,” says Loring,

COVID-19 has also brought a new level of focus on how complex and vulnerable our food systems and supply chains are, even to temporary disruptions, so we have a greater awareness of how much is at stake.

“When these disruptions occur, the things that we took for granted, that strawberries would magically appear, that meat would be cheap, it doesn’t work that way,” agrees Dr. Tammara Soma, assistant professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University.

Canadians were deeply shocked, she says, when they saw huge lines at food banks and, in the same newscasts, global images of milk being dumped and food being plowed under because of failures in the supply chain.

Resiliency has a price. So how much will we pay to support a food system that can sustain global-warming shocks, and also keep food on our tables despite periodic shocks such as pandemics, trade disruptions or social unrest? And who will pay?

What concessions are we prepared to make?

There are two sides to the answers, says Loring. “One side is how we look at our food systems in terms of their contribution to climate change, and the other is how we look at our food systems in terms of the impacts that they are certain to experience because of climate change.”

The disruptions and stresses currently placed on food supply chains and production as a result of COVID-19 are a good learning experience for how these systems will have to deal with the stress and disruptions as the result of climate change.

“We have an opportunity to look at what’s happened, take stock, and ask about what worked and what didn’t so we can build more resilience into our food system,” says Loring. “There’s more to come and we need to do that.”

As an example, the Arrell Food Institute is actively soliciting evidence from people in the industry about how to build resilience into the Canadian food system with its new initiative called “Growing Stronger” (see below).

In terms of changing our food systems to address ongoing climate change, a lot of the knowledge and technology already exists to do that, says Loring.

“We just need to find a way to motivate people and incentivize those kinds of changes,” he says, citing Project Drawdown (see below) as an example, which he credits with a tremendous portfolio of opportunities to curb the CO2 that comes out of our food systems.

“You can address the two issues at the same time. Making our food systems more resilient to what the impacts are going to be can use the same strategies as shortening supply chains and making our food systems less input-intensive. Those things make us more resilient to what the impacts of climate change are going to be, but they also reduce its footprint.”

“It’s a win/win,” says Loring.

The Drawdown Project

Founded in 2014 by Paul Hawken and Amanda Ravenhill, the Drawdown Project is a non-profit organization, funded largely by foundations, individuals and institutions, that brings together a coalition of scholars, scientists, entrepreneurs and advocates from around the world.

Its mission is to help the world reach “Drawdown” — the point in the future where levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline, thereby stopping catastrophic climate change — as quickly, safely and equitably as possible.

It promotes tools and solutions across many different sectors, including agriculture, that can contribute towards its goal.

Growing Stronger initiative

Time is running out but until July 31, 2020, the Arrell Food Institute and the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute are gathering evidence via its “Growing Stronger” initiative from all sectors of the Canadian food industry including producers, processors, retailers, food service, advocates and consumers, about what happened to the Canadian food system during COVID-19.

The goal is to build recommendations to help make the Canadian food system more resilient in the future.

To submit your experiences, visit the Arrell Food Institute website.

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