Climate change concerns abound


FARMERS SHOULD BE preparing to adapt to the effects of global warming, warns David Runnalls, President and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote sustainable development. There’s scientific consensus that global warming is real, he says. “It’s 95 to 98 percent certain. I’d bet my bottom dollar that, on average, it’s going to get substantially hotter and dryer over the next twenty years.”

The fact is humans have put more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the past 25 years than in the ten thousand years before that. Some scientists say if we don’t do anything the earth will be uninhabitable in fifty years. If the average temperature rises more than two degrees, it’s estimated we’ll lose 20 percent of the world’s species. “In Copenhagen, nobody argued with the science,” points out Runnalls.

As farming and the environment are inseparably linked, there is no doubt that farmers will be impacted by any sort of climate change. In Canada, it will get hotter and dryer, explains Runnels. There will be a longer growing season but less water as evapotranspiration (a combination of water loss through the leaf and from the leaf surface) increases. The weather will become less predictable and there will be more droughts. According to Runnalls, places like the US Great Plains, China, Russia and  Ukraine will be more affected than Canada. However, Canadian farmers will still experience climate changes and there will be global market impacts, specifically a shortage of grain, continues Runnels.

It’s difficult to predict exactly how agriculture will be affected. With limited global warming (less than 2°C), parts of Canadian agriculture may actually benefit from a longer growing season. However, moisture will also become limiting and there will likely be increased insect infestations, crop damage from extreme heat, increased soil erosion, increased weed growth and disease outbreaks and decreased pesticide efficiency.

“We’ve got maybe twenty years to adjust,” explains Runnalls who grew up on a farm in Ontario. “Those countries which are quick on their feet will do better.” Canada is just starting to wake up and beginning to ask questions which is about where most countries are at, continues Runnalls. Plant breeding, crop selection, water conservation and changing tillage practices are some of the tools available to help farmers adapt to climate change.

Agriculture can also be part of the solution. There are two main areas where farmers could reduce greenhouse gases which contribute to global warming. The first is through changing manure management practices to reduce methane emissions. Methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, explains Runnalls.

The second way that farmers can mitigate greenhouse gas production is through fertilizer management. Farmers will need to be smarter about when and how much fertilizer is applied, he continues.

Agriculture and forestry can also play a big role in reducing global warming by following practices which increase carbon contents in the soil (carbon sequestration). “There are lots of ways to lock up carbon in the soil,” says Runnalls. These include utilizing no-till or minimal tillage operations, reforestation and growing perennial crops which don’t require tillage. “Perennial crops eliminate plowing which releases carbon,” he continues. There is also the option of diverting land toward crops and farming practices that increase carbon levels in the soil and there are talks of programs which would compensate farmers to do so.

For the most part, a Carbon Market (i.e. paying farmers to sequester carbon) has yet to take off. “It’s not yet clear how these markets would operate,” explains Runnalls. However, the provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec have signed up to California’s program which   means that by next year they will have to have an off-set system in place. Ontario agriculture should be having input into the discussions.

Although farmers are aware of the potential dangers of climate change, the big issue is ensuring that actions are taken before it is too late. “Farmers need to get involved in the debate,” says Runnalls. •