Old farm buildings beside a pond on the prairie near the town of Trochu, Alberta, Canada

As Canada Promotes Climate Change Adaptation, Agricultural Industry Is Poised to Lead or Be Left Behind

By Georgia Exell, Ashley Rawluk on August 1, 2023

Recent federal actions in Canada, like the National Adaptation Strategy and the upcoming Sustainable Agriculture Strategy, signal that climate change adaptation efforts in the Canadian agriculture sector are increasingly becoming a priority. While these policies are well intended to increase the adaptability, profitability, and viability of Canadian farms, most Canadian farmers are not yet implementing deliberate actions that will increase their resilience to climate change.

The momentum to build climate resilience at the farm level has stagnated, but solutions do exist. Below, we outline a few policy options that will encourage producers to consider adaptation actions.

Canadian producers are used to planning and decision making around the variability of day-to-day weather because of its effects on crops, livestock, transportation, and, ultimately, the economic viability of their farms. However, the climate that producers are used to is changing, and the decisions of the past may no longer be appropriate for the changes already experienced and those yet to come.

Unfortunately, many producers remain skeptical about the concept and impacts of climate change, adaptation actions, and the link to greenhouse gas emissions. As Canadian producers are currently experiencing the negative impacts of climate change, why is there reluctance to implement deliberate actions that will increase their resilience to climate change?

The reasons for this skepticism are wide ranging but include a lack of easy-to-understand information about regional climate change projections and adaptation actions tailored to the needs of agricultural producers and shared through trusted sources, like commodity groups and fellow producers. Producers also do not feel included or understood in regulatory decisions and programs, which is why they, along with other agricultural experts, want to engage in these decision-making processes, applying their knowledge and experience to policy research, development, and implementation.

It is crucial for collaborative dialogue to occur between agricultural policy-makers and producers to help the latter recognize how climate change will impact their farms and begin to take action to increase their resilience.

Making sure farmers have a seat at the table

Producers need to lead the conversation on climate adaptation to ensure that agreed-upon decisions make sense, can be implemented, and have measurable impacts. Their active participation will also increase the likelihood that decisions will be well received by the wider farming community, as well as foster a more positive message about Canadian agriculture and the good work already going on.

Some positive examples already exist to support momentum at the farm level and across the industry. Farmers for Climate Solutions is a national coalition that advocates for agriculture as part of a solution to climate change, facilitating conversations between producers, the public, and decision-makers that lead to practical climate solutions. They also fund the Farm Resilience Mentorship Program (FaRM), a free, farmer-to-farmer learning hub, in partnership with regional farm organizations across Canada. Living Labs, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research initiative in which the International Institute for Sustainable Development is a partner, makes participating farmers a key partner throughout the program, valuing, recognizing, and applying their input and hands-on expertise from the start.      

Unleashing the potential of EFPs

Environmental Farm Plans (EFPs) are voluntary processes through which farmers identify areas of environmental assets and risks and set realistic action plans to improve environmental conditions on their farms. As of 2021, 45% of Canadian farms had completed or were in the process of completing an EFP, although participation varies across production types and regions. While already successful, EFPs have untapped potential. They could be used to evaluate environmental efforts at the farm level, helping to demonstrate alignment with commodity-based sustainability efforts (e.g., Dairy Farmers of Canada’s proAction program requires an up-to-date EFP) or international export standards (e.g., Farm Sustainability Assessment equivalency in Alberta’s EFP).

Quebec and British Columbia already include a climate change adaptation and mitigation lens in their existing programs. Quebec’s equivalent of the EFP is the Agri-Environmental Support Plan (Plan d’accompagnement agroenvironnemental), delivered one-on-one with an agronomist through agri-environmental clubs. The adaptation component of British Columbia’s EFP contains a 5-step On-Farm Adaptation Planning Process and identifies a list of BMPs for adaptation specific to farm production, resource protection, and environmental concepts.

There remains a critical need to mainstream similar content in EFP programs across the rest of Canada, helping to increase producers’ knowledge and to normalize climate change and adaptation within the agricultural community. To keep the EFP manageable and approachable, the climate change lens should be incorporated into existing content, simplifying new concepts and helping to identify actions they can take or may already be taking to enhance resilience.

Quebec and British Columbia have both developed regional agriculture adaptation strategies, providing locally relevant information regarding the anticipated impacts of climate change and potential adaptation planning, a key tool that supports producers during the completion of their EFPs. Regionally relevant strategies and actions are needed across the rest of Canada, providing producers, agricultural extension specialists, commodity organizations, and farm policy groups with the tools to understand and take adaptation action. Producers in the United States already have access to a tool that can support their capacity to adapt to climate change, giving them a head start compared to Canadian producers. Adaptation Resources for Agriculture is a useful tool designed for the Midwest and Northeastern United States that provides a structured yet self-guided process to identify and assess climate change impacts, challenges, opportunities, and farm-level adaptation actions. A similar resource would be useful to support Canadian producers.  

Looking to the private sector for inspiration

While Quebec and British Columbia provide excellent examples of provincial-level leadership in adaptation, commodity groups are also showing initiative. The Egg Farmers of Alberta, for example, recently completed a climate risk assessment and identified adaptation actions with All One Sky, an Alberta-based non-profit organization.

To ensure egg producers were a part of the process, All One Sky hosted a webinar with an overview and summary of climate projections, undertook an online survey, hosted a risk assessment workshop, and conducted ongoing engagement to identify adaptation actions. The climate risk assessment identified six climate change impacts that were used to determine adaptation actions that egg producers can take, as well as the Egg Farmers of Alberta, to enhance resilience. In the coming year, the Egg Farmers of Alberta will begin to implement some of the suggested adaptation actions by first developing informational resources for egg producers, such as how to manage heat stress in birds. The Egg Farmers of Alberta recognize different perspectives on climate change but respect that egg farmers are supportive of the concept of resiliency.

Framing the conversation appropriately

Adaptation to climate change can be a frustrating concept, with the existing heavy workload, tight profit margins, and public scrutiny that are a reality on many Canadian farms. Framing the conversation appropriately is important to avoid alienating some producers. Risk management tends to resonate, as producers have always been risk managers—be it of weather, markets, consumer demands, or other factors—but now that risk is changing. The conversation should also be realistic and practical, recognizing that adaptation actions can increase resilience and may even improve efficiency and productivity, but many are costly or have restricted accessibility, such as irrigation with expensive infrastructure and limited water licences.

There is no time to waste as farmers increasingly face reduced yields, failed crops, feed shortages, and loss of livestock—which, in turn, has implications for food security in Canada and internationally. The agricultural industry is on the frontlines of climate change but also has an opportunity to be at the forefront of building climate resiliency into their operations and futures. Coordinated and collaborative efforts are necessary at federal and provincial levels to build trust with the farming community, provide relevant and contextual information about climate change and adaptation, embed climate change and adaptation initiatives into EFPs and regional agricultural adaptation strategies, and allow producers to show Canadians the great work they are already doing. Canada’s climate is changing, and we need our agricultural industry to adapt, or we risk leaving producers—and our food security—behind.