Illustration by Ryan Garcia
Editor's note: This article is an exploration of a truly complicated topic: food and climate change. We’ve shared perspectives that touch upon the personal aspects, the scientific realities, and the actionable first-steps that can be taken to better plan for future changes in our climate.
The Morning Meal
"Aunt Mary, what’s baann knock?” I looked over my mug of chicory root “coffee” at my nephew screwing his eyes at the word. He was looking through an old cookbook of mine. “Bannock. A bread made by many of our Indigenous neighbours. Or Scottish. Depends who you ask,” I answered in all scholarly seriousness.
“Oh” replied Evan. “So, is that what you’re making now?”
My answer to this latest question was a chuckle; Evan does not like surprises and that’s exactly what I was serving him for breakfast.
He was staying with me for the weekend while his parents were down in that crammed Barrie metropolis. They were closing the sales on the last of their land holdings in the Greater Barrie area before leaving the city for good. Some would fold into the Greenbelt, and some they would sell or lease. Boring stuff for a child. Of course, I didn’t mind having Evan stay with me on my little farm in Foleyet. I can always use more hands out here.
“I told you I’m making a special breakfast. Have you finished your goat’s milk?” As if the milk moustache hadn’t given that answer away, Evan put down the Parr Trail cookbook and gave his glass a last sip.
“But, Aunt Mary, how come today is a special breakfast?”
“Because, Evan, it’s just you, me, and the tummy tickler!” I said as I found the same spot on his belly that used to send his father and me into fits of giggles. “Now,” I said, “can I trust you to fetch a few eggs from the coop?”
“Yes!” He was still young enough to love watching the chickens scratch the dirt and cluck at each other.
“Alright, then grab a basket and remember to say thank you to the hens.”
“I will Aunt Mary!” And with the speed known only to seven-year-olds, was out of the kitchen and over to the coop before the door could swing back shut.
Tempus fugit is no joke. Did the radio really say it was summer 2040? It’s when I spend time with my nephew I realize just how much has changed. When I was Evan’s age, almost every weekend breakfast was a thing of wonder. It was easy to enjoy mountains of bacon, homemade bread, BBQ fruit skewers (my grandfather loved cooking fruit, no matter the season), eggs however we liked them, REAL coffee, and, of course, pancakes. Someone’s birthday or a holiday might’ve meant adding to the table smoked salmon and Montreal bagels, or fried chicken and waffles, or – “Thank you Hen” – like a pin to a balloon, my nephew’s serious voice broke through my food montage. I looked through the window and spied him adding two more eggs to the basket.
I never thought I’d be living (never mind farming!) – so far north in Ontario. I worked hard in Toronto for my finance degree and lived the ideal urban life for a while – no car, a solid Bay Street job and a few potted plants on my condo balcony.
Our diets shifted so gradually, I barely noticed at first. I only started paying attention to the differences in the land and food once the economy followed the climate, and changed as well. Breakfast tables today are
no longer laden with imported wonders and mountains of processed meats; one just can’t afford them for the everyday.
Now, we save bacon for special occasions. Grandpa’s BBQ fruit skewers aren’t the same without a bit of pineapple (wow, I can’t recall the last time I saw a fresh pineapple), but I’ve been making my own peach and cherry skewers for years. Two years ago I joined other homesteaders to supply a community shared agriculture program to 500 people. Anything from yellow watermelons to patty pan squashes might show up in our boxes, so we never know what we’ll cook with next. No, breakfasts aren’t the same as they were 15 years ago.
But then again, not much is.
Climate Change and Food Production
On one hand, a warming climate in cooler parts of the world like Aunt Mary’s homestead on the Canadian Shield will provide extra heat for plants to grow bigger and faster. This, combined with the higher carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, could increase food production in these regions.
On the other hand, rising temperatures in warmer areas will push crops past their heat tolerance threshold. This will likely offset any increase in food production on a global scale. A recent publication in Nature suggests that with just a 1°C increase in global temperatures, global wheat yield will decline by 4.1 percent to 6.4 percent. This is extremely bad news for a crop that, together with rice and maize, supplies over half the world’s calories.
Ethiopia’s 2017 drought crisis led to the death of over two million livestock. A severe heat wave in central California killed 6000 cattle. However, while, the food system is a victim of climate change, it is also responsible for approximately one-third of all human-related GHG emissions. Infographic by Evan Gravely
Ethiopia’s 2017 drought crisis reminds us about the fragility of our food-producing landscapes. Extreme water shortages brought on by warming temperatures in the Indian Ocean exhausted pastures and dried up local water supplies, leading to the death of over two million livestock. Normally, these animals supply milk to Ethiopia’s pastoral communities and are a major source of food. Without them, people go hungry. By August, nearly one in twelve Ethiopians were depending on dwindling emergency food aid.
The changing climate, sped up by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, is changing humans’ ability to grow food. For regions in Africa, rising temperatures could double the risk of drought by the end of the 21st century, and the pattern follows for other areas of the world at middle latitudes. Flooding, which devastates crop harvests, will also increase, along with the risk for severe heat waves, such as the one that killed an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 cattle in central California this past June. Most regions in the world are not prepared for such climatic extremes, and even a modest increase in extreme weather events could wreak havoc on food production.
The trajectory of global food production will depend on how well societies adapt to the effects of climate change. For example, a warmer climate will likely increase the spread of diseases like Asian soybean rust, which can reduce soybean yields by anywhere from 10 to 80 percent. Rising temperatures and other human factors are disrupting pollinator populations, which are essential for food production and contribute billions of dollars to the agricultural economy.
Most of the higher-tech, scientific agricultural innovations to address climate change impacts (such as engineering disease- and drought-resistant crop varieties, or inventing pollinator drones) are concentrated in the richest regions of the world, despite the fact that climate change will most heavily impact the poorest regions. As a result, the damage caused by climate-related food system disturbances will be asymmetrical between the richest and poorest parts of the world.
But the true crux of the problem is this: while the food system is a victim of climate change, it is also responsible for approximately one-third of the human-related GHG emissions. As well as adapting to the regional impacts of climate change, societies must contain rising global temperatures by reducing their GHG emissions, and much of that will concern farming practices.
Agricultural lands take up over 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface, and food production activities on that land contribute billions of metric tonnes of GHG’s to the atmosphere every year. This is primarily through the emission of methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) – gases that are drastically more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of their warming potential. One important source of nitrous oxide comes from the widespread use of nitrogen-based fertilizers to grow crops, which has increased sevenfold over the last half century. Methane production from worldwide rice cultivation, the conversion of natural areas to agriculture, on-farm energy use, and the production of fertilizers, pesticides, and other farm inputs all add to the GHG burden of food production.
Methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are the most potent source of farm-related GHG. The largest portion – 65 percent –
of agricultural emissions come from cattle and other ruminant belches (CH4), and from applying natural or synthetic fertilizers and wastes to soils (N2O). Plants use only a portion of the nitrogen from fertilizers and as soil microbes break down the rest, they release NO2 back into the atmosphere.
Smaller sources include manure management, rice cultivation, field burning of crop residues, and fuel use on farms. In the underground carbon cycle, organisms decompose organic material into its simplest components. One of these is CO2 and it is stored in the soil in high concentrations. Because the concentration of soil and atmospheric CO2 is different, some CO2 diffuses into the atmosphere. However, there are huge fluxes in the uptake and release of CO2 through these two processes and the net release of CO2 into the atmosphere is estimated to be quite small (less than one percent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions). Diagram by Ryan Garcia | adaptedfrom ippc (2006)
Overshadowing these factors, however, is global livestock production, which accounts for well over a third of all food-related GHG emissions. When cows and other ruminants digest food, microbial fermentation takes place, which releases CH4 into the environment when the animals pass gas. Furthermore, since livestock production diverts approximately one-third of all cereal crops for their feed, this system also carries the GHG footprint of intensive crop cultivation.
Beyond production, food often has to travel long distances for distribution and undergoes energy-intensive processing and manufacturing activities. After processing, food must be packaged, stored, and sold through a food retail infrastructure that generates its own GHG emissions. While there are no globally available estimates, in the United Kingdom, food supply chain activities occurring after production make up nearly half of all food-related GHG emissions.
A final but important consideration is how food waste contributes to climate change. Approximately a third of all food ends up wasted. This occurs for various reasons, including poor handling, issues with storage and transportation, as well as the rigorous quality standards that food retailers impose upon their suppliers. Food waste fills up landfills and releases N2O and CH4 into the atmosphere
when it decomposes. Moreover, food waste represents the lost potential to mitigate GHGs by using what we produce more efficiently.
Ultimately, we need to start feeding ourselves in a way that does not contribute climate change – the force that threatens our future food supply. Agricultural technologies and techniques may shield our food-producing landscapes from the worst effects of climate change, but these responses are only viable on a global scale if they’re accessible to the most vulnerable. We must prioritize solutions that work for everyone.
Back to the Futue of Saving Seeds
Though counter-intuitive, many of the world’s poorest and hungriest citizens are farmers themselves. Two billion small-scale growers operate more than 90 percent of the world’s farms, and produce 80 percent of the food in non-industrialized countries. Half of them earn less than $1.25 per day. The challenges they face are different than those faced by Canada’s large-scale farmers. The resources available to them are also unevenly distributed.
Understanding how climate change will affect the global food system – and conversely, how food systems affect climate – requires that we keep the wide-ranging realities of farmers in mind. Agro-industry leaders might argue that high-tech solutions are necessary to feed a growing global population in a changing climate, but these solutions are not adapted to the diverse crops, landscapes and income levels of small-scale farmers around the globe.
Most farmers seek to steward the land responsibly. But their choices are often constrained by incentives that prioritize uniformity and yield at the expense of flavour, nutrition, ecosystems and the climate.
Decades of policy favouring industrial agriculture have encouraged farmers to move away from traditional farming knowledge and practices, which were developed over thousands of years of experimentation. This shift resulted not only in environmental degradation, but also in a loss of valuable expertise. It also severely weakened the biodiversity of our seed supply.
All over the world, crop diversity has long been the core of our food security, and the best insurance policy for farmers. Planting and saving a variety of crops improves chances of good harvests, especially in difficult years, because different varieties perform better under different conditions. Diversity also helps crops adapt over time. A robust gene pool provides not only traits useful in current conditions, but also others that can become useful in new conditions, allowing the crop to adapt rapidly.
The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates 75 percent of the world’s crop diversity has been lost in the last century. This means that at a time when farmers need their crops to adapt to a changing climate as quickly as possible, their genetic uniformity makes our our agricultural system is more vulnerable than ever.
La Via Campesina, the global farmer and peasant movement formed in 1993 by farmer organizations from Latin America, Asia, North America, Africa and Europe, was the first to define “food sovereignty.” Its calls for the recognition of the right of peoples everywhere to define their own food and agriculture systems, and to access healthy and culturally appropriate food grown sustainably.
In farmers’ fields, this global movement takes the form of agroecology: the science and practice of sustainable agriculture. Agroecology blends scientific inquiry with the wisdom and ingenuity of farmers, particularly the traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples and peasant communities. It focuses on conserving and enhancing local seed diversity, and promoting low-cost, largely organic farming techniques adapted to the unique conditions of each local ecosystem and farming community.
Farms using agroecological principles avoid the release of greenhouse gases from synthetic fertilizers. They also increase the soil’s ability to act as a carbon sink by recycling locally available resources, like compost or manure, to enhance soil fertility. Because agroecology favours local food production and consumption, it also leads to fewer GHGs related to storage and transportation. Farmers and consumers embracing these practices are rebuilding crop diversity, cutting down negative impacts from food production, and helping food systems adapt to a changing climate in real time.
Agroecology is gathering momentum and credibility. In 2010, a United Nations report determined that small-scale farmers could double food production in one decade using simple ecological methods. More recently, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems found that diverse ecological farming systems can “keep carbon in the ground, support biodiversity, rebuild soil fertility and sustain yields over time, providing a basis for secure farm livelihoods.”
Finding solutions in the field
On-farm innovation can yield incredible results. One example is the Chepe bean, which owes its existence to farmer Jose “Chepe” Santos from La Esperanza, Honduras. In collaboration with USC Canada’s local partner, the Foundation for Participatory Research with Honduran Farmers (FIPAH), Santos began his breeding project by sharing seeds with growers in 10 surrounding communities. They grew and selected the best beans for five years until they consistently showed the traits they were looking for. The Chepe bean has good yields and is naturally resistant to the major diseases common among beans in high hillsides, and thereby grows better under organic conditions. It is also high in iron and zinc, which is especially notable in light of new research finding these nutrients are at risk of declining in many staple crops due to changes in atmospheric and soil composition. FIPAH’s programs also led to the development of new maize varieties better able to resist hurricanes. And the best part? The benefits of the research remain rooted in local communities.
Closer to home, USC Canada teamed up with the University of Manitoba and farmers from across the nation to breed new varieties of wheat, oats, maize and potatoes. Similar to the Chepe bean, these varieties are bred by farmers to be grown under organic conditions in their local environments. They are also showing great yield, disease resistance, and micronutrient content.
Farmers around the globe are developing economically, socially and environmentally viable ways to feed the world in the face of climate change. We can all follow their lead.
Aunt Mary Saved Some Seeds
“Auuunt Maarrry…” Evan called me from outside. “I got five whole eggs! Should I bring them in now?”
“Yes please. Do you remember how to wipe them down?”
“Uh huh” my nephew said as he gingerly walked back into the kitchen. He placed the basket on the table and I gave him the damp cloth I use to give the shells a gentle clean. I watched him for a moment. More than 30 years ago, I might’ve been helping my grandmother by kneading dough, or setting the table or bringing one of my uncles an espresso. I marvelled that 15 years after packing up my lakefront-view condo, my nephew was helping me on the farmstead I’ve built little by little since I arrived out here on the Canadian Shield.
“Aunt Mary, I’m hungry. Are we going to eat soon?” I looked at the kitchen counter for my answer. I’d been caching ingredients for this meal for weeks and I didn’t want to forget anything.
“Bring me two of those eggs and then push your chair over here so you can watch.”
I cracked the eggs and beat the amber yolks into the milk and melted butter. No vanilla, not anymore. Evan wouldn’t know the difference though. I showed him how to make a well in the bowl and we mixed the dry and wet ingredients into that tell-tale lumpy batter. I added in a small handful of blueberries as I waited for the griddle to get hot.
“Here, Evan, watch.” I spooned a dollop of batter onto the griddle and watched my nephew gaze at the spreading, bubbling wonder of a blueberry pancake cooking. I helped him flip it and we kept going with the rest of the batter. Minutes later the food was on the table and we were just about ready to eat.
I looked at the combination of breakfast foods familiar to me now, but curious 15 years ago: the pancakes made with the wild blueberries we picked the day before, and flour from the organic milling co-operative two hours south, toasted bread made at the bakery up the street with the same flour, scrambled eggs from my coop, a jar of pears from the cellar, ground cherry jam from my neighbour, chicory root coffee for me and home-pressed cider for Evan. Oh, and of course, the four slices of bacon I saved for the special occasion.
“How come this is a special breakfast, Aunt Mary? I remember we ate this the last time I was here with mom and dad.”
“Yes, Evan, but I didn’t have any of this yet to share.” I went to the fridge and took out a small glass jar; not nearly full. Inside was a thick, copper-coloured liquid.
“You know those smaller trees I have outside? Do you remember what they’re called?”
Evan looked at the jar and then back at me curiously. “Dad called them naples.” He said.
I laughed. “No, they’re called maples. And this is pure maple syrup. It’s sweet and made from the tree’s sap. Try some on your pancakes.” It was more an order than invitation as I poured a thin stream on half a pancake.
The smell of the syrup was enough for me to remember the clear, sweet, MAPLE taste. Between the changing weather and catastrophic forest fires, maple syrup was yet another fond memory for most of us now. But when I first moved onto the property, I discovered a few surviving maple trees way at the back. After years of trial and error, last spring I was finally able to harvest a humble amount of sap and boil my very first batch.
More importantly, I had managed to harvest some of the maple keys, plant them and convince them to germinate. Amazingly, they grew! Now we could see my saplings from the kitchen window. I dreamed of the far-off future. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to some day add maple syrup to the CSA boxes?
“When you’re much older, more of those trees outside will be big enough for you to make some of this yourself,” I told him. “Go on, try it and tell me what you think.”
Evan took a bite, and more than a few moments to consider.
His answer of “May I have some more?” was enough for me. I poured out what was left onto his plate. It would take months of time, lots of work and a little good luck before we would have more syrup. But I didn’t mind giving him the last drops; it was worth it to watch him enjoy his breakfast.
“Morning Meal” and “Aunt Mary” – Sabrina M. Chiefari is an environmental educator. She uses story-telling, community action and spiritual thought to help all people understand how to act wisely towards our water, air and earth.
“Agriculture and Science”– Evan Gravely is pursuing his MA in Geography at the University of Guelph. He explores the connections between sustainable food systems, food security, and community food system development.
“Back to the Future” – Jane Rabinowicz and Elodie Mantha are with USC Canada, a non-profit that supports seed diversity and ecological agriculture in 12 countries. Their domestic program is called The Bauta Family Initiative for Canadian Seed Security. usc-canada.org.
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