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Making Agriculture and Rural Communities Resilient to Climate Change

 

Are food producers and the people who represent the communities they live in doing enough to prepare for the impacts of climate change?

There’s evidence that many people in the farming industry and rural communities have yet to embrace climate concern. In early January, for example, a poll by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture showed that only 35% of its members were concerned about the impact of climate change on their farms.

Much of the recent conversation and debate about climate change has swirled around the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, COP 21, and the universal commitment to keep global temperature rise in this century well below 2 degrees Celsius. There’s lots of talk about carbon pricing, carbon tax, and cap and trade systems but another degree of climate change conversation needs to happen across our rural food production landscape and everyone from farmers to municipal and regional governments needs to be involved.

That discussion focuses on how agriculture can become more resilient to the effects of climate change, specifically extreme weather and its potential impacts on primary farm production and rural communities and their economies. Building resilience begins with assessing risk factors in areas such as the infrastructure that supports farms and communities. In the livestock sector, for example, are barns and on-farm buildings capable of withstanding heavier snow loads? Are sufficient cooling and heating systems in place to mitigate the impacts of extreme heat or cold weather?

What about current building codes? Are they being updated to reflect the strength and structure required to address potential challenges posed by climate change? Farmers make significant investments in their farm buildings and if they can’t withstand extreme weather events, both the farmers and the municipality are impacted. The economic blow to a farm operation is obvious, but municipal resources, including fire and emergency response, are also severely stressed.

Many small communities are also dependent on single industries like agriculture. When these industries and businesses suffer, local jobs and tax revenue are lost and the health of the community is compromised.

Many rural communities are starting to ask tough questions about their ability to manage the potential impacts of climate change. Do they have enough staff and depth of knowledge to address concerns and manage in a time of crisis? Unfortunately, many small municipalities have limited resources – often the person responsible for managing the water treatment plant is also counted on to quarterback snow clearing and many other municipal services. Resources are stretched thin. Ontarians only have to look back to 2011 to witness the damage a severe weather event such as the Goderich tornado can cause. In this case, damage was estimated at $131 million in the town alone.

Conversations on the impact of climate change will continue to dominate world and  Canadian politics and environmental agendas for the foreseeable future. Farmers and agribusiness need to be engaged in that conversation. But leadership and action is also needed at the provincial and local level to ensure farmers and rural Ontarians build resilience to a changing climate that could negatively impact lives and businesses in their own communities.

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