Nature smacks Canada behind the head after COP 26’s failure to reach consensus on agriculture

Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur on Unsplash

Industrial farming is killing the climate and the planet. For once it’s not just those with the lowest emissions getting walloped by weather harsh enough to collapse infrastructure and take lives. Canada has benefited handsomely from natural resource extraction, including fossil fuels of course, but also the nutrients from the rich sedimentary soils of our flatlands. This week, British Columbia received notice from Mother Nature that there’s a problem with the way we’ve been doing things. As the flood waters recede a bit and we take stock of all that’s been destroyed, I just pray that we don’t throw ourselves into rebuilding all that was lost exactly the way it was.

Just starting to appreciate a disaster at the confluence of climate change and a century of land use decisions

The mudslides and flooding in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia come right on the heel of the conclusion of the 26th Conference of Parties in Glasgow. There is no doubt that a confluence of factors related to climate change are heavily contributing to a catastrophe whose magnitude is still hard to fully appreciate.

  • All Canadian routes to Vancouver — the country’s biggest port — were shut down by mudslides and collapses, some long segments unlikely to reopen for months. (If you think supply chain issues were bad before, just wait.)
  • A whole town — Merritt — remains evacuated as the flood caused the complete failure of its wastewater treatment plant and swept away entire homes.
  • Mother Nature delivered a history lesson by reminding us that the now-called Sumas Prairie, a large, flat plain in the Fraser River valley, was until recently Sumas Lake. The wildlife-rich area was drained in the 1920s, using dykes and pumping stations, to increase farmland and feed the growing local population in this otherwise mountainous region.

And farm we did! The area is now home to roughly 60 dairy farms and as many poultry farms. Those are not the quaint farms of yore, Charlotte’s Web style. We are talking about industrial farming with thousands of animals crammed in small spaces, feeding on grain imported from other provinces.

On Tuesday night, the mayor of Abbotsford, the agricultural hub built on top of Sumas Lake’s remnants, issued a dire warning: complete evacuation of the lowlands of town was now warranted due to the likely breakdown of the Barrowtown pumping station. Official messages were clear: leave the farm animals behind, human lives are at risk.

Wednesday morning, the worst had been averted, in part thanks to the efforts of hundreds of crew members and volunteers. But major damage had already been done, and another river of rain forecast for next week will keep officials and crews from sleeping.

In addition, those farmers lucky enough to have animals left alive will soon have nothing to feed them, as road and rail disruptions will prevent new shipments of feed from streaming in.

Imagine, if you dare: hundreds of thousands of animal drowning, carcasses floating away as waters keep moving, spilled manure pools, and more. Aside from the individual animals’ suffering and lost lives, we are contemplating fouling of the soil and groundwater. A toxic mess. The dose makes the poison, and when the feces of millions of animals are piled into a small area, something terrible is bound to happen, eventually. It now has.

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

A lost opportunity in Glasgow

There are lots of good reasons why any conversation on climate change should include agriculture: not only agriculture causes at least 20% (and possibly up to half!) of all greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet, but growing food is also profoundly disrupted by and vulnerable to changing weather patterns. Many of us in developed countries have, for decades, taken access to food for granted because it just seems to appear on the shelves of grocery stores. With the covid-19 pandemic, and increasingly frequent extreme-weather events, from fires to flooding, my fellow British Columbians are waking up to the complexities of the global food chain.

Yet, food and agriculture remain marginal topics at climate summits. They are discussed in a separate stream of sessions dubbed the Koronivia Joint Work in Agriculture. It was expected that, after four years of work, the Koronivia process would be reaching some sort of agreement on a path forward at COP 26. They even had a promising 2-page draft.

There is generalized consensus that industrial agriculture as we’ve come to rely on it is highly problematic. Our soils are degrading fast, and industrial livestock management isn’t sustainable. Smaller farms that integrate livestock with grain and vegetable farming, and empower farmers (as opposed to multinational seed and chemical companies), are largely believed to be the path of the future, because they make a more rational use of soil resources and because they enable a food system that is more resilient to… climate-change related catastrophes.

“Generalized” consensus… except that countries including the United States, India, and Canada are pushing back, notably stalling the inclusion of even the word “agroecology” in the agreement. For now, the working group has managed to pull together “draft text elements” for an agreement. Everything that is in brackets in the document — and that is practically every word of it — still needs to be negotiated at COP 27 in Egypt next year.

Apparently, Canadians would rather continue to rely on the industrial farming model that yields unnecessarily high volumes of animal protein for human consumption. We like our huge dairy farms and endless fields of canola, keeping them divided by chains of mountains. We especially appreciate the high-tech jobs in multinational corporations, and subsidizing their research and development.

How will we rebuild our local agriculture?

Obviously, the atmospheric river that soaked British Columbia last weekend would not have spared us just because we’d have supported the inclusion of agroecology in the Koronivia agreement. The karmic coincidence is nevertheless hard to ignore.

As everyone involved, from farmers to ministers, is now pulling out a calculator to estimate the damage — and the cost of rebuilding — one would hope that we’d reconsider our agricultural model… if only because it’s in our best interest if we want to have something to eat as climate-driven catastrophes shrink our universe on an increasingly frequent basis.

In his eye-opening paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, professor Jem Bendell from the University of Cumbria, UK, points out that climate change forces us to contemplate relinquishment. In other words, “what do we need to let go of in order not to make matters worse?” I say: we have to let go of our industrial mode of farming animals for the production of meat, dairy, and eggs. Those methods have proven efficient at producing enough animal protein to feed every Canadian over 200 pounds of it every year, but we know now that such high levels of consumption are not only unnecessary, but also deleterious to our health. Sure, smaller-scale agriculture inspired by agroecology principles would yield smaller amounts of such “foods,” but actually that would be a good thing for us. We’d individually improve our health, and collectively make more rational use of our land and soils.

Talking about this topic today, as many homes and barns are still filled with over a meter of water, feels like mentioning the United States’ foreign policy on September 12th, 2001. But if we don’t discuss it now, we will miss a precious window of opportunity to make important changes to our food policy.

The photograph at the top of this article does not represent the current flooding event. It was taken in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence by Jo-Anne McArthur of We Animals.

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Vegan mom and cooking coach, runner, writer, reader, PhD in sociology, morning person. Chief Meal Planner at Vegan Family Kitchen.

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Brigitte Gemme

Brigitte Gemme

Vegan mom and cooking coach, runner, writer, reader, PhD in sociology, morning person. Chief Meal Planner at Vegan Family Kitchen.

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