The green crystal ball

The following article was printed in the Ontario Corn Producer, December 2008.

By Lilian Schaer

These days, it seems hard to predict what may happen with any degree of accuracy three months from now, let alone three years into the future. But although we live in volatile times, there are some fairly safe bets on what may lie ahead for farmers on the environmental front.

Green social responsibility – There will be a growing emphasis on environmental consciousness and responsible farming practices. As the green evolution continues to gain in strength and popularity, consumers will demand more environmental responsibility from everyone, including the people who make their clothes, build their cars and grow their food.

For farmers, this isn’t much of a shift as the vast majority has been focused on environmental stewardship for a long time. Crop rotation, soil conservation and water management are only some of the things we’ve been doing for years, but what will be new is the need to be able to prove it. Consumers are growing ever-more skeptical of anyone making claims without backing them up so it is important we talk about what we do and why we do it.

Climate change – This will influence all aspects of our lives for many decades to come, and there will be both opportunities and challenges. Even a slight warming of the average temperature may allow new crops to be grown in Ontario that haven’t been grown here before or to grow existing crops in new areas. Climate change will also affect our neighbours to the south, which could open up possibilities for Ontario growers to fill a void or meet a new need.

Climate change also means more extreme weather patterns – wild temperature fluctuations, sudden shifts in wind strength, rapid onset of inclement weather or perhaps more frequent and more severe storms bringing hail, rain, damaging winds or snow. The rollercoaster of a wild weather season can take an emotional toll on farmers, so we’ll need to be increasingly resilient to deal with bad weather that will affect the quality and quantity of our crops. Perhaps this will lead to stronger, more resilient varieties? Or different growing practices?

Importance of technology – Technology will continue to play a leading role but we will increasingly have to defend our use of it in agriculture. Already, the use of pesticides is being targeted by bans and restrictions in several Canadian provinces. Here, agricultural use was exempted under the recent legislation change governing pesticide use, but questions from consumers and pressure from activists to tighten the laws will continue.

And yet, in the western world, where we struggle to keep good farmland from disappearing into subdivisions and have fewer and fewer farmers every year, we are faced with the daunting task of doing more and more with less and less when it comes to feeding the global population. This means we need every technological tool at our disposal to ensure we can continue to meet this challenge – but safely and in an environmentally responsible way.

Water availability – One thing we’ve never had to worry about in Canada is water. But it’s unlikely to stay that way. Rapidly growing cities and increasing water exports are straining our natural water resources, making all of us vulnerable to water shortages, especially in years with little rainfall. Tough decisions lay ahead, ones we’ve never had to tackle before.

We need a far-reaching water strategy to address issues like water taking and water availability. In times of shortage, who will continue have access to water? Will it be municipalities to keep households going? Will it be industry who sustains jobs? Or will it be farmers who are growing food? And if our government goes down the road of implementing a fee for use system for water taking, who will have to pay how much? These are all questions that aren’t likely to go away and farmers will need to be vigilant and active to make sure their voices are clearly heard.

Farmers have long been staunch environmentalists – probably even more so than most “green” activists. As growers, we depend on the soil, the air and the water for our crops, our farms and our way of life. We will need to continue to adapt to changes in our environment, but an equally big challenge will be the need to tell people what we do, why we do it and what their world would be like if we didn’t.

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