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"The agriculture sector historically has shown enormous capacity to adjust to social and environmental stimuli that are analogous to climate stimuli." (10)

To assess the vulnerability of agriculture to climate change, it is necessary to consider the role of adaptation. Appropriate adaptations can greatly reduce the magnitude of the impacts of climate change (see Box 4). Assessment of adaptation options must consider six key questions:(28, 55, 58, 59)

  • To what climate variables is agriculture most sensitive?
  • Who needs to adapt (e.g., producers, consumers, industry)?
  • Which adaptation options are worth promoting or undertaking?
  • What is the likelihood that the adaptation would be implemented?
  • Who will bear the financial costs?
  • How will the adaptation affect culture and livelihoods?

It is also important to understand how adaptation to climate change fits within larger decision-making processes.(61) Climate change itself is unlikely to be a major control on adaptation; instead, decision making by producers will continue to be driven jointly by changes in market conditions and policies.

BOX 4: How does adaptation affect impact assessments?(60)

When adaptation measures were incorporated directly into impact assessments, the impacts of climate change on crop yields were found to be minimal in agricultural regions across Canada. In fact, yields of many crops, including soybeans, potatoes and winter wheat, were projected to increase under a 2xCO2 scenario. Some adaptation options considered in the study included using nitrogen fertilization to offset the negative impacts of increased water stress on spring wheat, and advancing the planting dates of barley.

Adaptation Options

Adaptation options can be classified into the following categories:

  • technological developments (e.g., new crop varieties, water management innovations);
  • government programs and insurance (e.g., agricultural subsidies, private insurance);
  • farm production practices (e.g., crop diversification, irrigation); and
  • farm financial management (e.g., crop shares, income stabilization programs).(1)

These adaptations could be implemented by a number of different groups, including individual producers, government organizations, and the agri-food industry.(1) These groups have differing interests and priorities, which may at times conflict. Therefore, before determining which adaptation options should be promoted or implemented, they should be carefully and thoroughly assessed (see Box 5).

BOX 5: Evaluating adaptation options(62)

The applicability and success of different adaptation options will vary greatly between regions and farm types. To determine whether an adaptation option is appropriate for a given situation, its effectiveness, economic feasibility, flexibility, and institutional compatibility should be assessed. In addition, the characteristics of the producer and the farm operation should be considered, as should the nature of the climate change stimuli. Possible economic and political constraints are also important considerations.

Most importantly, however, the adaptation option should be assessed in the context of a broader decision-making process. Researchers agree that agriculture will adapt to climate change through ongoing management decisions, and that the interactions between climatic and non-climatic drivers, rather than climate change alone, will direct adaptation.

Much of the adaptation research in agriculture has focused on water shortages. Common suggestions for addressing water-related concerns include improving irrigation systems and adjusting the selection of planting dates and cultivars.(60, 61) For instance, longer and warmer growing seasons may allow earlier planting and harvesting dates, so that the extremely arid conditions of late summer are avoided. To deal with historic water shortages in southern Alberta, irrigation canals were upgraded, water storage capacity was increased, and irrigation management was improved.(63) These strategies, along with water transfers and changes to crop insurance programs, are adaptation options often suggested for dealing with future climate changes.

Water conservation measures are another important adaptation mechanism for agriculture. For example, snow management could be used to increase water storage,(64) while equipment maintenance and upkeep could help to reduce water waste.(62) The use of summerfallow may be necessary for dryland farmers in areas of recurrent drought, but use of minimum tillage and chemical fallow techniques offer significant advantages over tillage summerfallowing with respect to soil erosion and retention of organic carbon in the soil.(65)

New species and hybrids could play an important role in agricultural adaptation. Development of new heat- and drought-resistant crop varieties is a frequently recommended adaptation option. Improving the adaptability of agricultural species to climate and pests is an important component of the research being conducted at federal, provincial, university and industrial organizations.(3) The potential role of biotechnology and soil organisms in enhancing the resilience of soils and plants is also being investigated.(3)

In eastern Canada, the fruit tree sector is expected to benefit from the introduction of new cultivars and species(19) and, in the southern Okanagan Basin, a longer growing season would allow new fruit varieties to be grown.(17) In the Atlantic Provinces, researchers predict that corn and soybeans will increase in dominance, and that corn hybrids commonly used today in southern Ontario will be introduced to take advantage of warmer temperatures (see Box 6).

BOX 6: Adapting in the Atlantic Provinces(13)

Longer and warmer growing seasons are projected for the Atlantic Provinces (see figure below). To take advantage of these new conditions, producers are expected to adjust the types of crops grown, and introduce new hybrids. For instance, crops such as corn and soybeans are expected to increase in dominance, whereas small grain cereals will likely decrease. Producers should also be prepared to introduce new corn hybrids, which are adapted to warmer conditions, such as those currently used in southern Ontario.

However, warmer temperatures are not the only factor influencing crop decision making. Researchers point out that small grain cereals are unlikely to be phased out completely, as they work well in rotation with potatoes and provide straw for animal bedding. Other considerations include production costs, protein levels and financial returns of different crops. The suitability of the soil, moisture conditions and the influence of crop type on soil erosion must also be considered.

Projected number of growing degree days (GDD) above 5

Projected number of growing degree days (GDD) above 5deg;C (uses the Canadian CGCM1 with aerosols)
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[GIF, 65.5 kb, 640 X 755, notice]

There is general optimism regarding the ability of livestock operations to adapt to warmer temperatures. The wide geographic distribution of livestock attests to their adaptability to various climates.(24) Some simple adaptations to warmer climates include adjusting shading and air conditioning,(24) and the use of sprinklers to cool livestock during excessive summer heat,(57) although these options may incur considerable expense.

Adapting to changes in moisture availability and extreme conditions may be more challenging. For the beef industry, options that have been discussed include advancing the date when livestock is turned out to pasture, increasing intensive early season grazing, and extending the grazing season.(66) The success of these strategies is expected to vary with location and pasture type. The introduction of new breeds and/or species may also play a significant role in reducing climate change impacts on livestock.(24) It is noteworthy that none of these actions are likely to prove effective in mitigating the impacts of extreme climate events, such as the 2002 Prairie drought that has forced many ranchers to sell off cattle.

Sound land management practices are essential for soil conservation, which, together with flexibility regarding land use, will help minimize the impacts of climate change on agricultural soils.(67) Long-term management strategies that increase soil organic matter, so that soil has a high nutrient content and strong water-holding capacity, will also render the land better able to cope with future climatic changes.(68)

Agricultural Policies

"The ability of farmers to adapt... will depend on market and institutional signals, which may be partially influenced by climate change." (22)

Government programs and policies, such as tax credits, research support, trade controls and crop insurance regulations, significantly influence agricultural practices.(55) For example, recent reform of the Western Grain Transportation Act has contributed to increased crop diversification on the Prairies.(69) Programs and policies may act to either promote or hinder adaptation to climate change.(58) Researchers have suggested, for instance, that crop insurance may tend to decrease the propensity of farmers to adapt.(70)

It has been suggested that policies designed to promote climate change adaptation in the agricultural sector must recognize the dynamic nature of both the biophysical and social systems in agriculture.(25) There is a need for designating responsibility for action, as adaptation occurs at many levels.(55) A general goal of policy development should be to increase the flexibility of agricultural systems and halt trends that will constrain climate change adaptation.(25, 71) No-regrets measures that improve agricultural efficiency and sustainability, regardless of climate change impacts, are also encouraged.(25)

Producers' Attitudes toward Adaptation

Agricultural producers have demonstrated their ability to adapt to changes in climate and other factors in the past, and they will continue to adapt in the future. However, the key question for agriculture is whether adaptation will be predominantly planned or reactive. The answer appears to depend largely on the background, attitudes and actions of individual producers.(58)

Producer interviews and focus groups reveal that, to date, there is generally little concern in the Canadian agricultural community regarding climate change (e.g., references 57, 58, 72). These attitudes have been attributed to the confidence of producers in their ability to adapt to changing climatic conditions, and their tendency to be more concerned with political and economic factors.(58, 73) Indeed, numerous studies have demonstrated that financial and economic concerns are the primary influence on producer decision making. This does not mean that adaptation to climate change will not occur, but rather suggests that climate change adaptations will be incidental to other adaptations, and should be viewed as one element of an overall risk management strategy. (73)

It is also possible that events such as the 2001 drought are changing producers' attitudes toward climate change, particularly when viewed as an analogue of what might be expected in the future. Multiyear droughts seriously challenge the adaptive capacity of agriculture. At workshops held across the Prairies, acceptance of climate change as an important issue has become common, as has a growing recognition of the need for action.(74)

Socio-economic Consequences of Adaptation

As other countries take action to adapt to climate change, Canada will need to keep pace or risk being placed at a competitive disadvantage.(55) In fact, successful anticipatory adaptation in the agri-food industry could provide Canadian producers with a competitive advantage. Before promoting adaptation options, however, it is necessary to consider the full range of socio-economic impacts. For example, although switching production to a new crop may increase overall agricultural production, it may not be economically viable due to marketing issues and higher capital and operating costs.(25) Since more than 98% of Canadian farms are family owned and operated,(5) the effect that adaptation options to climate change will have on culture and livelihood must also be considered.