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A better future starts on the farm : Recommendations for recovery from COVID-19 in Canadian agriculture

Canadians know we need resilience in our food system.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on our food system. Headlines have captured vulnerabilities and raised alarm bells among Canadians: outbreaks at beef packing plants and bottlenecks in the meat supply chain; dairy farmers dumping milk; Canadian potatoes deteriorating in storehouses and contracts cut on the eve of a new season; ongoing farm labour shortages exacerbated by border closures; farm workers falling ill and dying.

The government’s response to date has been rapid and commendable, but has mostly focused on temporary deferral of debt repayment or increased access to credit. This may provide short-term relief, but ultimately worsens the debt problem in agriculture, with total farm debt in Canada currently sitting at $115 billion after having nearly doubled in the past two decades. A recent survey by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) reveals that 48% of farmers worry about the indebtedness of their business while 40% are concerned that the “new normal” will threaten the sustainability of their business.

Farm debt is not the only rising trend in Canadian agriculture. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are projected to increase over the next decade, already up 22% over the last 28 years. And, our farmers are on the front lines of increasing impacts from climate change.

COVID-19 recovery should prioritize climate resilience in agriculture.

According to the United Nations’ Emissions Gap Report 2019, the world is on track to warm by 3.2 degrees Celsius this century. This projection takes into account all current policies and all emission-reduction commitments, including those made in Paris where Canada committed to reducing emissions by 30% by 2030. A 3.2 degree rise will create major uncertainties for Canadian farmers. But the reality may be even worse: higher latitudes and continental interiors—areas such as the Canadian Prairies—are warming at twice the global average. The path we are on would have most of Canada’s food producing lands warm by 6.4 degrees Celsius this century—nearly one degree per decade.

This must be the subtext for Canada’s COVID-19 recovery efforts in agriculture.

The past several months of the pandemic have revealed some long-hidden problems, but much larger risks loom. The biggest impacts threaten to arrive quickly, unless we change course. COVID-19 recovery is an opportunity to create change in a sector that has seriously lagged in its climate response. Now is the time to support farmers to adopt low emission, high-resilience approaches that benefit farmers and provide ecological goods and services such as clean water, air, biodiversity, and renewable energy from which all Canadians benefit.

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