Farming requires getting a few things right.
It’s all about the right crop in the right soil, with the right amount of heat and water, at the right time. Tinker with any of these and the results could be disastrous.
With climate change, farmers are being dealt a tough hand, throwing off systems they have relied on for ages. The warming of the planet has brought volatile events such as increased precipitation, dry spells, and changes in soil composition.
Adapting to these new challenges is a huge concern of the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, a research hub based at the UBC Farm.
Clare Cullen, who is the centre’s operations director, noted that farmers have always faced a certain level of uncertainty, depending on what nature throws at them.
“But with climate change, it’s going to make things so much more extreme and unpredictable,” Cullen told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “In the Lower Mainland region, some of the big concerns are sea-level rise that could flood lands in areas such as Delta, Richmond, and South Surrey. Saltwater can get into the aquifers below the land, and so it can really alter the soil composition and soil health and really damage plants.”
The 24-hectare UBC farm at the university’s Point Grey campus is a living laboratory for researchers to experiment on new methods for climate-smart agriculture.
“We have researchers who are trying to do modelling, are working with farmers to help them come up with solutions to adapt, and we’re providing that research out to farmers,” Cullen said.
One of the recent research projects at the farm involves the evaluation of a range of plastic films that can be used as soil mulches and to build low tunnels to cover plants. The plastic materials were examined for their effectiveness in controlling temperature.
Cullen said that one of the things being modelled at the UBC Farm is the cultivation of an assortment of crops in a growing season.
“One of the ways, actually, to be resilient to climate change is to diversify your crops so you’re not just growing one or two things that will be susceptible to drastic changes,” she said.
In connection with this approach, Cullen noted that the farm is also trying to demonstrate that one can grow a lot of food on small lots.
“I think the other message, too, is we have to think about growing more food locally, and with climate change we need to stop transporting food from far away,” she said.
Although climate change poses risks, it also offers opportunities.
In a report last year by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, researchers projected that warmer temperatures will extend growing seasons in temperate countries like Canada.
By 2050, Canada is expected to increase its agricultural productivity by 2.5 percent, according to the UN FAO publication The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets: Agricultural Trade, Climate Change, and Food Security.
However, things are more complex. According to Natural Resources Canada, although growing seasons at the end of the 21st century will be 20 to 40 days longer, “climate change-related increases in risks associated with pests, droughts, fires and other climate extremes may limit the extent to which these gains are realized”.
On balance, Cullen is optimistic about the future of farming.
“I think there are a lot of passionate people who are getting into it, and there are people adapting to climate change and thinking about it,” Cullen said. “It is going to be challenging, for sure—the unpredictability of it all—but, again, people are thinking about how to be resilient to climate change.”