Healthy Ontario farms will help us as supplies decline

The crystal ball says we live in the best place in the world. Personally, I’ve long been convinced of it, having lived in this area for most of my life, but this is the opinion of a bio-economy expert who spoke at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre recently.

His perspective was a bit different from mine, though. While my ideas of why this is a great place to live are shaped by family, friends and lifestyle, his were focused on societal fundamentals, such as oil, water and food.

John P. Oliver says our conventional supplies of oil, food and water will be surpassed by global demand by 2050. Peak oil — the point when the flow of oil has reached its maximum level and supplies begin to decline — is a commonly discussed scenario, but discussions surrounding peak water and peak food are less prominent.

Peak water—lack of availability of clean, fresh water—may be 30 to 40 years away, Oliver says, but peak oil and peak food—a shortage of available food staples—are only five to 20 years into the future.

These events will be driven by global population growth as the world hits nine billion inhabitants by 2040, a 20 per cent reduction in global crop production capacity caused by climate change, and the addition of about one billion middle-class consumers in Asia over the next 10 years.

This is a brewing perfect storm, Oliver predicts — one that can only be addressed if the world joins together to make farming and food production a priority within the next 15 years.

Agriculture can provide us with green, renewable fuel sources. Agriculture can take a strong leadership position on prudent, sustainable management of water supplies. And agriculture can develop crops and planting technologies to adapt to increasingly stressful weather conditions brought about by climate change, such as extreme heat or drought.

This all seems pretty straightforward to most of us involved in food and farming, but what made me stop and think, however, was his contention that the Great Lakes Basin will be the Garden of Eden of the future.

Those of us living here, particularly in Ontario, are very fortunate, Oliver says. We’re blessed with an ample supply of fresh water, something many parts of world can only dream of.

We also have fertile farmland and a climate that lets us grow everything from peaches, cherries and grapes to corn, soybeans and wheat. And we have a research infrastructure that is increasingly focused on developing solutions to some of the problems we’ll be facing.

But while we move toward these research outcomes that may be 10 or 20 years away, we must not ignore a more immediate concern — which to me means ensuring we’ll still have a vibrant farming sector in Ontario when that time comes.

Ontario farmers are struggling with rising costs and increasing competition from farmers around the globe who can produce food more cheaply. This can make it difficult for farmers here to remain profitable – and even harder to entice young people into the business.

Ontario veal farm

It would be easy at this point to simply point the finger at government and insist it must do something. Yes, it has a role to play, but so do we as consumers.

We have choices to make every time we eat, drink, shop and vote. How much do we value safe, locally produced food? How important is abundant, clean and fresh water? What do sustainable rural communities and a strong economy mean to us?

To me, healthy Ontario farms make concepts such as peak oil, peak water and peak food a little less daunting. In more direct terms, they also mean jobs, health, and access to a reliable, home-grown food supply.

And that’s a reassuring thing to see in that crystal ball. Let’s hope that image doesn’t become cloudy and fade away.

Note: this editorial was first published in the Guelph Mercury, December 30, 2010.

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