Vulnerability of Farms and Adaptation to Climate Change in Quebec: Risk Management and Adaptation to Climate Variability

During the course of their lifespan, humans were used to harvest what they cultivate by their own hands. However, this reality has changed with the development of technology especially with the beginning of the industrial revolution that began in the 18th century. The industrial revolution has encouraged the over-use of fossil fuels, which is a high-carbon economy, such as coal and natural gas. People began to dominate nature. They cut trees, they destroyed forests, and they overexploited almost any useful resource to an extent that their actions have exceeded the world’s carrying capacity. In 2007, the area that is available to produce renewable resources and absorb CO2, which is called “Footprint”, has exceeded the earth’s biocapacity by 50% (Alcamo, 2010). This is true because the methods that people have adopted are unsustainable. In fact and according to the American Institute of Physics, it is predicted that by 2050, the demand of the world for energy will double due to population growth and to the industrialization of developing countries (Crabtree, 2004). During the 20th century, global temperatures rose by approximately 0.60 C and climate models estimate that this figure is set to rise to 20 C by 2100 (Houghton et al., 1996). According to a report published on 18 November by the World Bank, the average temperature of the planet may rise by 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century (Torre, 2012). This global warming has been attributed in part to human activity, and in particular to the burning of fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. CO2, methane (CH4), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), tropospheric (low-level) ozone (O3), and water vapour (H2O), are among the important gases that are able, in the atmosphere, to absorb heat radiated by the earth, whilst allowing the sun’s energy to pass through unobstructed (Haslett, 2008). As a result, the gases allow the atmosphere to act like a greenhouse, and are responsible for producing the earth’s average temperature of 150 C (Haslett, 2008). This has given rise to the phenomenon that is referred to as the Greenhouse Effect, and without this natural phenomenon, the earth’s average temperature would be in the region of -170 C (Haslett, 2008). Concern is focused on the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere from human activity, which is causing an increase in the Greenhouse Effect, resulting in global warming. It must be noted that global warming may not be only due to anthropogenic effects and that natural phenomena may be contributing, such as variations in solar radiation output (Haslett, 2008).

There has now been well over a decade of research into the adaptation of human activities to climate change and variability in several countries, including Canada (e.g. Brklacich et al., 1997; Bryant et al., 1997; Bryant et al., 2000). In the early 1990s, apart from a certain level of skepticism, much of the work on the impacts of climate change on agriculture centred on climate change modelling. At that point in time – the early 1990s – farmers’ perceptions certainly revealed the potential of farmer adaptation to climate change and variability (Bryant et al., 2007; Bryant et al., 2005). Comparison of future yields under different climate scenarios with current yields was thus explored, giving ‘impacts’ in terms of changes in yields (Bryant et al., 2000). The yields for different crop types could then be compared and implications for agricultural land use change were derived directly from these model outputs, and this was undertaken in Quebec as elsewhere in North America (Singh and Stewart, 1991; Rosenberg et al., 1992; Mearns et al., 1992; Semenov et al., 1995). However, climate change and variability were certainly not a major preoccupation for farmers (Bryant et al., 2007; Bryant et al., 2005). At the same time, research during the 1990s stressed the need to recognize the inherent spatial variability of conditions under which agriculture has developed, and therefore to validate adaptation indicators more extensively and analyze regional differentiation of agro-climatic conditions in relation to vulnerability and adaptive capacity. In addition, the need to incorporate “the human factor” in climate change adaptation research resulted in a comparable change in orientation that included human agency with the biophysical impact-based approaches (Singh et al., 1996, 1998; André et al., 1996). From there, the issue of the adaptation of agriculture to climate change and variability (Bryant et al., 1997) was highlighted, followed by effort directed at understanding the capacity for adaptation of different farmers and farming systems (e.g. Bryant and André, 2003). As a result, questions have thus increasingly been posed concerning how human agency is or can adjust to these changing conditions. Research into the adaptation question for agricultural activities has been underway in Canada now by several small research teams for the last 16 years (Brklacich et al., 1997; Bryant et al., 2000).

The following paper will briefly discuss the research program dealing with adaptation of agriculture to climate change and variability at the universities of Montreal and McGill since the fall, 2004. The program is an extension of a longer research thrust into farm adaptation (and the adaptation of other human activities) that has been carried out at the Université de Montréal since the early 1990s. The partners of this particular research program are Ouranos, a climate change consortium in Montreal, the Agricultural Financing Agency for Quebec, the Ministry of Agriculture (Quebec), the Farmers Union of Quebec, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The Ministry of Natural Resources Canada and Ouranos financed this program.

The project focuses on risk management strategies by Quebec farmers, combining historical analyses of significant climatic events, selected crop production enterprises and insurance claims (yield effects) with analyses of farm-level strategies in terms of farm productivity and profitability (e.g. crop combinations and diversification strategies, on-farm resources ((soils, water) management strategies, sales strategies)) following these events. Also, the project builds on the understanding from the past experiences of farmers in Quebec in adapting to and coping with extreme events of adapting versus not adapting to changing climatic conditions. The research focused on three agricultural regions in Quebec, Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean (SLSJ) region, Centre-du-Québec and the South-West Quebec (Montreal).                                                                                                             The methodology is mainly based on a general conceptual framework which takes into consideration the bio-physical environment (e.g. climate and soil conditions) and the adaptation to climate change and variability as part of farmers’ risk management strategies. One should note here that the farmers’ risk management strategies are made ‘in context’, for example, in the context of other actors’ decisions which modify farmers’ perceptions either by providing farmers with additional information (e.g. the ‘good practices’ guides of La Financière, information provided by the MAPAQ and the UPA) or which determine certain parameters in the farmers’ decision-making environment (e.g. definition of crop insurance program regions, participation costs in insurance programs and other decisions that affect farmers’ assessments of costs and benefits). In addition, assessing how farmers perceive and address one particular source of stress, i.e. climate change and variability, must be seen in the context of the broader economic and political context (e.g. interest rates, exchange rates that affect costs of exports and imports and environmental regulation) as well as more regionally-based factors and processes, such as urban sprawl around major urban areas. As a first step, the Advisory or Steering Committee from the partners and stakeholders (Ouranos, MAPAQ, La Financière, UPA, Agriculture Canada) was set up. Second, a temporal analysis of climatic and crop loss information (using yields variability by production type and region relating to drought conditions, and other extreme climatic events (from La Financière)), as well as the regular reports of the Financière on crop growing conditions, was undertaken for the whole of Quebec. Third, the three target regions were identified. For the specific regions retained, an intra-regional analysis of climate-related claims relating to drought conditions (and other extreme climatic events)/losses/yields, was made in order to identify any concentrations (‘hot spots’). Organizing and facilitating focus groups with professionals in the regions retained, as well as farmers in the target regions, were done. Then, an analysis of farm models with and without adaptation was made. After that, the vulnerability at farm, sector and region levels, was assessed.

Since the three regions are very different from each others in many aspects (i.e. topography, municipal conditions, agricultural regions – in terms of climate conditions, soil conditions, crop composition and farm structure), the results of the project should be expected to be different in each region. Also, regarding the management of risk, farms should not necessarily be the same in each region.  The results of the research were divided into three main parts, which are: the level of preoccupation regarding excess rain, drought and freezing conditions, practices that had been modified or that were suggested following past events (excess precipitation, drought conditions and frost), and the most appropriate practices to modify in the future. With respect to the Level of preoccupation regarding excess rain, drought and freezing conditions, excess rainfall represented the primary preoccupation for farmers from the SW Quebec (Montreal) region, while for the Lac-St-Jean farmers it was lack of snow, and for Centre-du-Quebec farmers, the occurrence of low temperatures during the summer. For the professionals from the Centre-du-Québec, the preoccupations were mainly those relating to excess precipitation in the spring, summer drought and insects. For those from the SW Quebec (Montreal) region, the preoccupations were mainly centred on excess rainfall (fall and spring), frosts, insects, diseases, excess heat and drought. In the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, it was mainly lack of snow, as well as frosts, insects, diseases, excess heat and drought that were the main preoccupations. The perceptions of farmers and professionals from the same region were compared. For example, in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean the professional group was not as preoccupied with strong winds, excess heat and temperatures as were the farmers. The presence of blueberry producers in the focus group certainly explains some of this difference.

Furthermore, talking about the level of preoccupation regarding excess rain, drought and freezing conditions, some slight differences were observed between farmers and professionals in their perception of climatic events. Farmers from the Centre-du-Québec were relatively less inclined to advocate a change in crops (solutions that were proposed by the professionals) and, instead, opted more to change the type of seed used (i.e. the cultivars). On the other hand, the solutions and perceptions of farmers and professionals converged in terms of the importance given to changing the timing of farmers’ work operations, the method of working the land, drainage and of modifying techniques of soil drainage. Generally, farmers had modified different practices in their fields following problems associated with drought (timing, seeding density and choice of seed type). The professionals from the three regions were more inclined to suggest changes in the methods of working the soil. Irrigation was suggested by a minority of participants. And in relation to past problems with frost, most of the professionals suggested modifying the timing of different practices as well as changing crop type in the three regions. Most of the farmers also noted a change in the timing of different work operations as well as the technique of working the soil following freezing conditions. In the Centre-du-Québec and the Lac-Saint-Jean region, crop protection as well as the modification of wind breaks had also been undertaken. In the Lac-Saint-Jean region, the participants noted they had changed seeds and crops in relatively similar proportions (roughly 50 %).           Furthermore, concerning the most appropriate practices to modify in the future, participants were asked whether climate change was important in their region and to assign a value to the different strategies or practices to follow in the future. Generally, the highest values were obtained from the farmers in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region. These emphasized the importance of diversification, of abandoning certain types of crops considered to be vulnerable, and as well of changing crops in order to profit from any rise in temperatures. Farmers in the Lac-Saint-Jean and SW Quebec (Montreal) regions thought it was more important to obtain government assistance but also that it was important to modify agricultural tools and seeds.  Diversification of activities was considered in all three regions. Among agricultural professionals, diversification of activities was of interest in all three regions, as well as modifying ways of working the soil and also soil drainage. Those from the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region assigned much more importance to abandoning vulnerable crops and to changing crops in order to benefit from climate warming and government aid. Professionals from the SW Quebec (Montreal) region appear to want to have farming profit from methanol and ethanol production. Those from the Centre-du-Québec expressed the desire to adjust irrigation techniques to the imperatives of climate change as much as drainage techniques.

To conclude, agriculture is a sector that is naturally sensitive to climate and among the most likely to be affected by changing climatic conditions in the future. However, agriculture under certain conditions has the capacity to deal with and adapt to various challenges. As a result, modern farm managers are now trying to incorporate climatic uncertainty in their decision-making procedures with the objective of minimizing the adverse effects of changing climatic conditions or taking advantage of them on their farm by adopting wise practices and strategies.

Some suggestions of farmers and professionals were made to reduce the risks associated with climate change and variability. In the SLSJ region, crop diversification; development of windbreaks (e.g. snow cover); experiment with new practices; better water management; better advice to the producers; and change crop insurance; were recommended. To the South-West Montreal, the insurance should give credit for various techniques. The yield insurance punished only good farmers and supports poor ones who are not able or do not work to improve their production. In the centre of Quebec, there is a need for retention ponds and buffer zones to the field line instead of draining the ditch water directly to the river. It is evident that there are significant spatial variations both at the interregional and intra regional patterns due to climatic extremes. The variation spatially appears to be as significant as the substantial variation in temporal patterns. It is important to note that vulnerability also encompasses the broader system characteristics, at the community or territorial level, at the region, provincial, federal and broader international levels and recognizing such effects related to multiple sources of stress affecting the farm decision taker. The recognition of the reality of multiple sources of stress affecting the farmers’ decision-making environment also provides us with a clue regarding why farmers perceive climate change and variability with different degrees of ‘urgency’. As a result, agricultural risks are linked to one another. Adopting a holistic approach to risk management is important (Rispoli, 2011). Furthermore, there are significant differences between farmers in their level of awareness and adaptive capacity to deal with climate change and variability. Moreover, a number of results suggest important pointers for public policy and intervention in the field of agricultural adaptation to climate change and variability. Here, the key thread is that of variability and how this presents both a challenge and a set of opportunities for public intervention. While broad policies can be constructed to facilitate adaptation, the significant challenge is that it is at the level of the farmers in their communities that final decisions have to be taken. Public policy and intervention must be able to address the significant patterns of variability that were revealed by the research. Not only do climate conditions vary significantly between regions, they also vary significantly within broad regions (more so in some regions than in others). It is evident from the focus group meetings, that there is also significant variation between farmers in their awareness and ability to adapt, and to recognize the benefits of adapting through integrating appropriate strategies into their farm operations. Thus, on the one hand there are significant challenges in the public sector, perhaps in conjunction with other institutions and organizations such as the UPA and the Clubs Conseils, to undertake significant roles in counselling as advisors to farmers, as information providers and as educators. In addition, it is clear that some farming communities are more aware than others, and therefore perhaps already better able to adapt to the changing environment. Part of this comes from the network of social relationships that is stronger in some regions than in others. Since some of the adaptation strategies that might be considered involve groups of farmers working together (e.g. some drainage schemes), then these advising, information and education roles may also need to be oriented towards building the social capital that underlies such collective adaptation projects. One of the challenges in this is that adaptation may be partly a cultural phenomenon. Other research by the Université de Montréal research team had earlier emphasized that adaptive capacity was strongly related to farmers’ ability to be self-critical and question their current ways of managing and planning their farm operations. And in order to enable the potential of policies and programs to be used effectively to enhance the adaptive capacity of farmers, the issue of adaptation to climate change needs to be addressed more explicitly in the implementation of these policies and programs. Of course, this is more easily said than done.


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