The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed much about our food system. Most people have seen the headlines: more than 1,000 cases at a single beef-packing plant, farmers dumping milk, potatoes deteriorating in storehouses, and farmworkers falling ill by the hundreds.
More importantly, this crisis has revealed our vulnerability to the coming one — the much larger climate crisis. In preparing for that crisis, we can learn from our experience with COVID-19: Heed the advice of experts and act early. The pandemic has shown the need for clear government leadership, and strong, resilient supply chains.
The pandemic has one more lesson: It is important to “flatten the curve.” How does this apply to climate change? The curve for atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations has gone exponential.
The graph below shows global atmospheric CO2 concentrations from 1900 to 2020. The graph shows how much CO2 is in the atmosphere and, thus, how much warming we can expect. If we do not flatten this curve and push it continuously downward, we will unleash levels of death, disruption, and economic carnage that will far surpass those of the pandemic.
But this need not be a wholly negative message. We are showing, right now, around the world, that rapid, concerted action can push back deadly perils. Action can work. But inaction, in the face of viral or climate threats, is deadly.
Policy remedies for farms and food systems
The pandemic is hitting Canadian farms and food systems weakened by pre-existing conditions. Ill-conceived government and corporate policies have, since 1991, pushed nearly a third of farm families off the land, and two thirds of young farmers (those under 35).
"Ill-conceived government and corporate policies have, since 1991, pushed nearly a third of farm families off the land."
High input costs and low product prices have eroded net incomes, forcing many farmers to rely on taxpayer-funded support programs — more than $116 billion in total subsidies since 1985.
Farm debt, now $115 billion, has doubled since 2000. Corporate control and concentration are extreme, with two to four corporations controlling nearly every link of the food chain upstream and downstream of farmers. Governments have dismantled marketing agencies, regulatory bodies, and policy frameworks that previously helped balance power between farm families and agribusiness transnationals and restrained the profit-reaping powers of the latter.
If we combine what we know about likely impacts of climate change with the lesson of COVID-19, we can begin to formulate plans for resilient, revitalized food production systems.
To enable the farms that produce our food to withstand the impacts of climate change, to reduce climate-disrupting emissions from those farms, and to support adequate farm incomes, we must rapidly implement several policy reforms:
1. Governments must refocus their agricultural policies away from maximum-export, maximum-production, maximum-input, maximum-emission farm and food systems and toward sustainability and resilience. Reducing farmers’ overdependence on petroleum-intensive fertilizers, chemicals, and other inputs can reduce emissions and raise net incomes.
2. Nitrogen fertilizer is the largest single source of agricultural emissions. Nitrogen fertilizer is unique among human processes and materials in that it is a major source of all three of the main greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (in production), nitrous oxide (in use), and methane (from its natural gas feedstock). Canadian farmers have doubled nitrogen tonnage since 1993; emissions are up as a result. We must flatten such curves and bend them downward if farmers are to contribute to efforts to hold temperature increases below catastrophic levels. Governments must hire and train large numbers of independent extension agrologists to help farmers find production-sustaining alternatives to high-emission fertilizers and other inputs. Governments must also create demonstration farms where productive, income-supporting, low-emission approaches can be refined and showcased.
3. We need new agencies. One example would be a Canadian Farm Resilience Agency (CFRA). Modelled on the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) born out of the 1930s dustbowl, but updated for the 21st century and emerging climate threats, a CFRA could lead on-farm mitigation and adaptation, oversee wetlands restoration and tree planting, manage extension agrologists and independent soil testing, and operate demonstration farms.
4. We must diversify food production approaches. Large-scale farming will likely continue on most of Canada’s farmland, but we must increase the area farmed using low-input, organic, holistic, regenerative, and agroecological methods. Moreover, government policies must support and encourage all farmers in moving all farms, big and small, toward climate-compatible, low-emission production models.
5. Soil health is key. Soils rich in organic matter and carbon are more fertile, hold more water, and are a critical part of climate change adaptation and resilience. Government-funded research and education along with incentives within farm-support programs can support and accelerate soil-building practices by farmers.
6. Livestock systems must be transformed so that they maximize benefits (soil building, supporting grassland ecosystems, and functioning as integrated parts of biodiverse, mixed farms) while simultaneously minimizing emissions.
7. We must fix the farm income problem. Realized net farm income from the markets (without counting taxpayer-funded payments) is not far above zero ($16 per acre, on average, in 2019). Farm debt is on track to hit $170 billion this decade. Massive debt and inadequate income make farmers hyper-vulnerable to climate impacts, such as floods, droughts, and violent storms.
8. It is critical to change the structure of the agri-food sector so that we can increase the number of farmers stewarding the land, create desirable careers throughout the food system, and revive rural communities. Current policies have caused two-thirds of young farmers to be pushed off the land in a generation. Reversing such trends must be among governments’ top priorities as they revamp all aspects of agricultural policies. We need young farmers, new farmers, and more farmers.
9. The federal government must lead in helping farmers reduce emissions from buildings, machinery, and fuels. Governments must accelerate on-farm renewable-energy production; the development of low-emission battery-electric trucks, tractors, and other farm equipment; and energy-conserving retrofits of farm buildings.
10. Canada's agricultural policies should be rebuilt on a new foundation of food sovereignty: Local and regional food systems democratically shaped by the needs of producers, consumers, and communities, and focused on sustainability, resilience, justice, and the dependable provision of delicious, healthy food for all.
Like all human systems, agriculture must be restructured and transformed if we are to thrive during the 21st century.
The pandemic’s lessons are clear, and we know what we must do to prepare for climate change and avoid its worst effects. It is critical that we act now to build food systems that will be flexible and strong enough to withstand future crises.
We need to flatten curves, decentralize systems, diversify approaches, build capacity to withstand shocks, regionalize supply chains, support essential workers, and reduce susceptibility to risk. COVID-19 is a moment of reckoning, but a much larger and potentially more lethal reckoning looms.