Prairie agriculture in for even more change: U of M agriculture dean

Adapt to climate change rather than trying to mitigate its effects, says Karin Wittenberg

In 1980 there was no Internet. No one carried a cellphone or used GPS. Canola was a new crop for Prairie farmers. Expect even more dramatic change in the next 35 years, says Karin Wittenberg, dean of agricultural and food sciences at the University of Manitoba.

Wittenberg, the keynote speaker at last month’s annual meeting of the Prairie Improvement Network (PIN), said that by 2050 Prairie farmers will be producing a different range of crops in a growing season as much as 15 to 20 days longer, and faced with other climate change-related challenges such as drought and heavy rain cycles.

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Climate change is actually one of the more predictable unknowns of the future, and Prairie agriculture will be affected by many more variables we haven’t yet begun to anticipate, Wittenberg said.

These will be the policy shifts, political upheavals, changes in trade agreements, and social change that will bring about new consumer expectations of their food systems, all of which will affect Western Canada’s productive capacity.

But we can begin preparing now, said Wittenberg, citing a report released by the University of Manitoba last year titled Moving Toward Prairie Agriculture 2050. The report explores the impact of climate change on western Canadian agricultural systems, with a view to how we can begin to develop a response.

We will successfully adapt if we are able to cope creatively with unpredictable change, said Wittenberg. That means not merely surviving, but discovering new opportunities that will emerge.

We tend to fear change, but it’s a waste of energy trying to resist it, she said.

“We think of the good old days and we’re a little bit scared of the future all the time. But that conversation hasn’t allowed us to think positively about the opportunities that change creates.”

The good news is we’ve historically been pretty good at adaptation on the Prairies, Wittenberg said, adding that an adaptive approach, rather than one focused on mitigating climate change effects, is what will help us get to 2050 successfully.

Adaptive approaches will require more engagement with, and collective thinking across sectors, she said. It will mean developing more capacity for communicating with society as a whole, and that means investment in dialogue, policy, innovation and education.

“I don’t think we’re going to save ourselves by putting energy into trying to stop things,” she said. “Rather we need to put our energy into good policy with good goals, and those goals will be around food and health, food security, and efficient resource use, and around competitiveness, because we’ll continue to be very focused on the export market.”

New PIN chair

That message resonates with Souris-area grain farmer Dustin Williams, 37, who becomes the chair of the PIN this spring.

2050 is not some distant point in the future to him. “(T)hose are my retirement years. By then I will be approximately the same age as my dad is now.

“And I have two young daughters. You can’t tell yourself these are the next generation’s problems to deal with.”

Williams said he looks forward to working with the network, because the Prairie Improvement Network is ideally positioned to foster these kinds of broad conversations focused on helping Prairie agriculture prosper now and in the future.

“We see PIN’s role to be more longer-term thinking about problems than the shorter timeline of politics or individual interests,” he said. “Our industry is constantly evolving and we need to have a very long timeline in mind when we are making changes.

Williams takes over the chair’s role from Betty Green of Fisher Branch, who is stepping down as a director this year, as are Dr. Allan Preston of Hamiota, Jim Green of Brandon and Hank Venema with the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development.

The network, which is shrinking its board from 12 persons to eight this year, has also named Brandon-area farmer Stephen Vajdik to a one-year youth director role, re-elected Gordon Earl of Morden for a second three-year director term, and welcomes back Owen McAuley, a founding member of the network when it formed in 1996 as the Manitoba Rural Adaptation Council.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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