IDEAFEST 2012: Climate change and food security for BC

- Tyler Laing

When people analyse the issue of climate change, they often consider global temperature increases, rising sea levels and changes to ecosystems. The issue of food production and protection is another concern, though. On March 6, as part of UVic’s IdeaFest, Dr. Francis Zwiers, director of the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, and Dr. Aleck Ostry, a professor in UVic’s Department of Geography, held a public discussion about climate change in relation to food security in British Columbia—specifically in regard to water issues.

Zwiers, who is also a climate researcher at UVic, began the presentation by showing the audience of roughly 200 people a picture from Mount Douglas. In this picture he outlined elements of the climate system—sun, clouds, plane stream—and explained how everything fit together and had an impact on each other. 

He went on to explain how the climate has grown warmer. By studying temperature changes in decade increments, the trends have shown a global increase of one-tenth degree Celsius per decade. His statistics cover a 111-year period and indicate a rise of more than a full degree during that time. He attributes this, in large part, to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Zwiers described how carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide concentrations have burgeoned as a result of human activity since 1750. Levels now, he said, far exceed those of pre-industrial times, and that is due to the use of fossil fuels.

“This argument shows humans have impacted the climate scale,” he said.

What’s concerning about this, according to Zwiers, is that “warming has been most noticeable in the increase in winter minimum temperatures.” He added that this has caused higher levels of precipitation as well. With these warmer overall temperatures, ice runoff, precipitation and stream flow will all be “significantly affected,” which, he said, “will have serious implications.”

Touching on the issue of food security before ending his portion of the talk, Zwiers stressed that “we need different strategies for storing water as things heat up.”

Picking up where Zwiers left off, Ostry began his presentation by explaining how less snow in the winter would mean more runoff and likely more flooding. With warmer summer temperatures comes the heightened possibility of drought. And both of these issues would affect food production.

Ostry’s angle was regional food self-sufficiency in relation to climate change, but he expressed the challenges in finding accurate, basic information. To give an idea of how issues in one region might affect food needs in another, he demonstrated how a drought in California would hamper British Columbia’s importing of fruit and vegetables. This would, in turn, put a greater stress on those areas of BC that produce such items. Due to this type of effect, he said “we need to become self-sufficient.”

“If we’re able to measure consumption patterns, we can discover consumption needs,” he said. By obtaining the number of animals raised in an area, or by determining the number of hectares and specific yield of a region’s plant supply, we will establish a better idea of what we have and what we need. He showed the different regions of BC and what each produced in terms of food.

Again, he expressed concern: “We’re consuming more than double what we produce,” stressing that we need to determine the key production areas. “How does change affect these areas?” he asked. “We need water plans, flooding plans. We must protect the high production areas.”

After their presentations Zwiers and Ostry handled a robust question period. They made it clear that their research was based on trends, and that some of it was new and still under review. In response to a local farmer who, based on his own findings, questioned the notion of food security, Ostry said, “I hate the term food security. I use ‘food self-sufficiency.’” He acknowledged the growing pressures on our farmers to produce more food, and admitted that there were still problems with the methodology in his area of study.

“But,” he said, “we’re working on it.”



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Keywords: climate change, IdeaFest, water

People: Francis Zwiers, Aleck Ostry

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