In my last post, I talked about the importance of the circular economy in our ongoing efforts to sustain food supply and, ideally, end hunger in Canada. Unfortunately, even perfect application of circular economy principles won't get us to a future in which not only do we produce enough food for a growing population but also to end hunger and protect the planet.
For us to meet future food consumption needs responsibly, we need to be ultra-efficient in our production, producing the right food at the right time. So how can we increase yield, while ensuring food safety and sustainability? That's the subject of this post.
Along with the planet's growing population, we're dealing with limited resources, climate change and unpredictable growing conditions, all of which put pressure on already inefficient and wasteful food supply chains. And we aren't getting more land—farmland is disappearing as our cities expand and municipalities build more subdivisions.
Canada is the seventh-largest food exporter in the world, with more than 38 million hectares of arable land and annual crop production that results in millions of metric tons of protein. While the challenges of feeding the world's growing population are immense, we have an opportunity to take a lead on sustainable agriculture that benefits both people and the planet.
But climate change is affecting what we grow in Canada and when we grow it. As temperatures rise, farmers could potentially grow new types of crops that traditionally couldn't be grown here. Could we start to grow crops that typically only grow in tropical climates? Could we start to grow certain crops year-round?
Year-round growing could be a silver lining, but it's one that should be approached with caution. While Canada could benefit from a longer growing season, the Climate Atlas of Canada map shows that climate change is increasing the number of "Very Hot Days" throughout our agricultural regions, including the Okanagan Valley, the Prairies, southern Ontario and the Maritimes.
Very Hot Days aren't just hot. They can increase the risk of drought, wildfires and thunderstorms (which could lead to flash flooding, hail and even tornadoes). Changes in precipitation patterns, more unpredictable weather and increased frequency of extreme events mean that a longer growing season may not be the silver lining some are hoping for.
We're already seeing examples of this. In 2016, the Prairies experienced a drought in the spring followed by torrential rains and flooding in late summer. While planting and harvesting crops is reliant on seasonal weather patterns, so too is the farm-to-fork supply chain, including pest control, food storage and transportation.
A research paper published in the journal PLOS ONE predicts that climate change could open up new "agricultural frontiers" in Canada by 2080, where warmer temperatures would allow for the expansion of farming crops such as wheat, soy and corn into areas such as the Northwest Territories and Yukon.
But that comes with a host of new challenges, since an expansion of agricultural lands would also release huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions from the soil and negatively impact both biodiversity and water quality. It could also impact other food-related industries.
That's why the agricultural sector is looking for innovative ways to adapt to climate change and adopt sustainable farming practices, such as agroecology. To protect crops and improve food safety, life scientists are also working with farmers to reduce the use of chemical-based insecticides and herbicides and shifting the focus to fungicides, microbial products and other biological controls.
Adapting to climate change could also mean diversifying our food supply—and that means investments in AgTech, vertical farming and other sustainable means of food production (as I have discussed before), in addition to eating more plants. Another PLOS ONE research paper found that our current agricultural production "fails to provide the mixture of foods needed for the world's population to have the type of balanced diet recommended by nutritionists."
Getting it "just right"
To deliver healthy food to the world's growing population in a sustainable way, food production must adapt, and this, again, will require new and better ways to produce our food, as well as more reliance on plant-based sources of protein (which need less arable land to produce).
Canada, and the Prairies in particular, is well suited to meet this demand. Indeed, Canada already produces the majority of the world's lentils, mainly in Saskatchewan, according to Statista. Over the next five years, human consumption of plant-based protein is projected to nearly double, and some Canadian organizations are already making strides in this area by focusing on agricultural production with plant genomics and novel processing for plant-based meat alternatives.
From adopting more sustainable farming practices to diversifying our food supply and using technology to come up with new, innovative solutions to compounding supply and quality challenges—exactly what consumers say they want—the future of farming will look a lot different than it does today. But it could help to feed the world—without sacrificing the health of the planet to do it.