EPISODE 8 – Climate Change & Agriculture
In this episode, we explore how resilient our land-based farms and farm-related businesses are to the impacts of global climate change, as well as solutions researchers and farmers are exploring to help improve our ability to adapt long-term. We hear from industry experts on how climate change is currently impacting our agri-food industry, what solutions are being implemented successfully, and discuss how we can best prepare for future climate-related challenges.
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Dr. Alana Pindar (0:02)
When was the last time that you had to clean your windshield off of your car because there was so much bug splatter on the car? That is something that my children are not going to be able to do to their vehicles, because we have lost that significant amount of abundance… So, when you think about that, how is that abundance that's not there on your windshield anymore. Just think of that abundance that's not in our fields that is not pollinating our fruits and vegetables anymore. That is the impact of climate change.
Rosalie Gillis-Madden (0:34)
Everybody should care about climate change, particularly as it affects agriculture, because everybody likes to eat, right? Some of the projections that we're seeing for how climate change is going to affect Nova Scotia is that we're going to see more intense rain events and longer periods between rain events. So that basically means a heck of a lot of water in a short period of time. So, I'm sure folks are familiar with those eight-inch downpours that we get. And then longer periods between rain events means more drought, and so that can be really challenging to grow crops in those kinds of conditions.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (01:14)
Welcome to Beyond Research, a podcast brought to you by Research Nova Scotia.
In this episode, we will explore how resilient our land-based farms and farm-related businesses are to the impacts of global climate change, as well as looking at some solutions researchers and farmers are exploring to help improve our ability to adapt. We will hear from industry experts on the impacts climate change has had to date on our agri-food industry and explore how we can best prepare for future changes.
You have most likely heard that bees, and other pollinators, play a vital role in a thriving environment. That said, the challenges they face to be able to effectively support our environment may come as a surprise.
Our first guest, Dr. Alana Pindar, is the Weston Family Visiting Professor in Ecosystem Health and Food Security, appointed at Cape Breton University. A Cape Breton native, this role is a perfect fit for her entomology background and passion for both pollinators and the environment. Looking from the perspective of our pollinators, Dr. Pindar offers a unique perspective on the impacts climate change has on our farming sector.
Dr. Alana Pindar (02:27)
Climate change is having a huge impact on the agricultural sector, particularly in Nova Scotia. And what I would like to concentrate on is the impact that climate change is having on our pollinators. One in three bites of food that we take is the result of pollination. And our pollinators are having a really hard time with the climate conditions that they are facing not only in Nova Scotia, but across North America.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (02:54)
So, how does the work Dr. Pindar is doing at Cape Breton University address these issues?
Dr. Alana Pindar (02:59)
What I'm doing here at CBU is really drawing attention to the fact that, ecosystems are also a way of mitigating food security. And we have to start thinking of our backyard as an ecosystem, and really understanding that we have a role to play, and to help the agricultural sector and to help ensure that we don't have to be food insecure. I'm working with a lot of farmers to understand what they have, what where bees are nesting wild bees, how we can increase the pollination services, and also adapt their farms to increase their yields. But also, to provide a lot of ecosystem services through things like leaf litter, and, just letting some dead fall, you know, come into their fields a little bit because all that all those things are providing provisions for pollinators. So, the more that we can really understand what we have, then we can help conserve it in those particular areas.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (04:11)
In addition to providing provisions to pollinators, I learned that decomposing leaf litter is actually an important component of healthy soil as it releases important nutrients.
So, we know that there are many ways that climate change is impacting our environment, and in turn our agri-food sector. However, Dr. Pindar sees some key areas of concern for pollinators in particular.
Dr. Alana Pindar (04:33)
We're seeing that on a global scale, the increasing temperatures are really impacting our pollinators. But here at home and in Nova Scotia, what we're really finding that it's the extreme weather events that are really causing havoc on our agricultural system, and several things that I'd like to point out is the wind events that are really causing a problem. So, when you think of it in terms of a bee, and for everyone listening, if you hold up your pinky finger, the size of your fingernail on your pinky finger is roughly the same sizes as our wild pollinators. When we have wind events that are over 30 kilometers, a bee this small cannot land on a flower. So, if a bee cannot land on a flower over 30 kilometers, that is a natural wind gust in Nova Scotia and we're seeing wind gusts that are that are double that in very strategic times of pollination, particularly in early spring. If that wind event keeps increasing, the pollinators cannot withstand that, and they can't land on the flower. So, we're going to lose our crops.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (05:38)
Another area of concern is the lack of snow.
Dr. Alana Pindar (05:41)
The other thing to really keep in mind too, particularly right now is we have had no snow. Snow is extremely important for our pollinators, particularly our pollinators that are nesting in the ground. Snow acts as an insulation and a blanket to keep our pollinators in the ground. And what we're seeing with the lack of the snow precipitation and staying on the ground for so long is that our pollinators are emerging earlier than when the flowers are out for our particular crops, and I'm thinking apples for Nova Scotia, I'm thinking blueberry are two major economic crops. And what's happening is we're seeing this disconnect with our pollinators. So, our pollinators are coming out a little bit earlier than the flowers are ready. And so, what's happening is we we're not relying on this free service that our wild pollinators are providing anymore. We have to go to our managed species because we have no other choice for food security.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (06:45)
Understanding that wind gusts and snow are two examples of how climate change is negatively impacting our pollinators today. What impact does Dr. Pindar see climate change having on our farmlands in the future?
Dr. Alana Pindar (06:58)
I see it getting progressively worse, if we don't start to really understand that we have to manage for climate change. We have to start really doing things in an agricultural system to increase our pollinators to be able to be in these in these systems. So as I said, we're talking about wind events that are not, not a really big 100, you know, and 20 Kilometer gust, when we're talking 30 kilometers. So, there are things that farmers can do. And there are management practices that farmers can do. And they're very simple. And one of them is to increase the amount of natural vegetation around a field. Because it provides a windbreak it provides security for whatever is living in their fields, in terms of our pollinators. And we have to think small, and we have to think local, and it's more important than ever, if we're going to mitigate climate change, bees typically only fly one to kilometers. So, if they're found in your fields, we have to protect what's there, because they're probably nine times out of 10 nesting in that field, and they're providing that free service.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (08:22)
With the increases in hobbyist beekeepers and other managed species, I was curious. How are these new colonies impacting the existing ecosystem and the natural pollinators within? Dr. Pindar explains an interesting difference between the impacts of wild and managed species of pollinators on agriculture.
Dr. Alana Pindar (08:42)
In Nova Scotia, we have over 250, wild bee species that are providing our pollination services, not only to our crops, but to our flowers for free. We do rely on managed pollinators because they fly farther, and our fields have gotten larger and larger and larger, and they can do a better job in terms of the area that they're covering, not necessarily a better job in the pollination we know for you know, it, there's been lots of evidence that has suggested that wild pollinators pollinate our crops better, but because our crops are so large, they just can't cover that area. So again, it's going back to our management practices, how do we think local and produce a better yield for the farmers and for us, frankly, that we can sustain ourselves?
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (09:34)
Dr. Pindar believes there are clear opportunities to improve our agricultural resilience in the face of climate change, but there is no magic bullet that can be applied to each area of land. The first step is understanding the needs of your specific area.
Dr. Alana Pindar (09:45)
First things first is we need to know what's pollinating our fruits and vegetables in Nova Scotia, and we really have a lack of information. And we really have to get down to the nitty gritty and figure out how many of our 250 wild species we have are found in agricultural fields, once we have a good idea of what's pollinating and what's found in our agricultural fields, then we can start working on the mitigation of climate change. The simple things to do is to really pay attention to your wind events. One field may have a very strong wind gusts going through there, and we have to keep in the back of our mind that if it is then the nice little insects aren't going to be able to land on flowers. Another field might have to concentrate on soil and, and soil nutrition to be able to allow ground nesting species to get into our into our fields if that is what's missing. So, we really have to get down to what we have in our fields first and then we can start looking at how we can increase and conserve what we have to ensure that they're going to be present in the future to do the job that that we require them to do and like I said that they are doing for free for us. We don't pay them they're here they are doing it for us for free.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (11:09)
We have explored a few ways farmers can help mitigate the impacts of climate change. But what about the rest of us? With our yards full of plastic flamingos and swing sets, where do we fit in as a possible solution?
Dr. Alana Pindar (11:20)
I get asked all the time, “well, what can I do?” in terms of agricultural areas, there's a lot of things that people can do to help mitigate those changes themselves. And we really have to think about, particularly this time of year, the yard cleanup. So, when you rake all that up and clean it up? Yes, for humans, it does look very nice. But for a lot of species, it's actually causing a lot of problems, because they're emerging from their nests a lot earlier. And if you back onto a farm, then you may be, causing a decline in that blueberry field that, those species are living there. So, we all have a part to do in this.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (12:08)
In terms research opportunities, Dr. Pindar believes our focus should be working to understand the nuances of the hundreds of different pollinators. The only way we can close this knowledge gap will be through further research. Once we have this deeper understanding of the species inhabiting our fields, we can work to address issues of climate change on farmlands on a case-by case basis or by geographic region.
Dr. Alana Pindar (12:36)
Pollination research is a crucial part of the agricultural industry right now, because we really need to understand what pollinators are pollinating our crops. And we really have to get in there and to understand what species we have, which ones are more abundant, which ones are better at pollinating particular crops, and which ones are just living in the area. We really have to start to really get into the nitty gritty and understand what we have so we can explain to farmers, what we have, and then really start to look at how management practices are impacting our pollinators. But if we don't know what pollinators we have in particular crops anymore, then we can't really be managing for climate change, without knowing what we have first.
Research is really going to be playing a role in mitigating climate change for the agricultural sector, particularly when we're talking about nature-based solutions. One thing that we really haven't discussed, and we need to, for our farmers is how much of this area do we need? How much do we have to get them to conserve? Is it 5%? Is it 35%? There is no evidence right now to suggest how much of that area we require. And it's something that I've started to look at, and what the preliminary data is showing that is that we need to conserve probably 14% to 16% of our habitat, in order to make sure that the provisions that pollinators have are in our system, but we need to do more, we need to really understand what that relationship is, you know, because we also have to feed so many people in agricultural sector that it can't all be naturalized area, there's a reason that our fields are that big. And it's because of food security, and because of what we have to do, and again, that that touches back on the importance of our backyards. And what we really can do is to increase that that percentage and make sure that we're doing as much as we can.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (14:42)
Earlier we heard Dr. Pindar explain the negative impacts our warm winters, and lack of snow, has had on our pollinators. But these warmer winters also bring another issue for or farmlands – more pests.
Rosalie Gillis-Madden (14:54)
Anytime that you don't have the same sort of snow cover, or if you have a warmer winter, it means that some of your pest cycles aren't going to be interrupted. So normally, we kind of count on those hard winters to kill off some of our pests. And with climate change, we're also not seeing that. And then on the other side of the coin, those warmer days, we're also going to see more pest cycles in a year. So, say an insect pest, we call it a life cycle when it's basically from egg to adult back to egg. And so, you'll see more life cycles in a year as well. So, there's definitely a lot of challenges facing the agriculture sector as impacted by climate change.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (15:29)
This is Rosalie Gillis-Madden, the On-Farm Climate Action Fund Technical Project Manager at Perennia Food and Agriculture. Perennia is a provincial development agency with the mission to support growth, transformation and economic development in Nova Scotia’s agriculture, seafood, and food and beverage sectors. In fact, they are Nova Scotia’s only technical development agency focused solely on our food sector and maximizing its value.
In her current role, Rosalie works to support farmers, and strives to enable informed decisions about best management practices that are suitable to each farm and business model.
Let’s hear more about the exciting work going on at Perennia.
Rosalie Gillis-Madden (16:11)
What we do is called agricultural extension. So, for folks who aren't familiar with agriculture, the term extension means basically that we work with farmers to help their business be more prosperous and profitable. So, if a farmer has questions that they can't answer themselves, they come to us, and we help them troubleshoot. Or maybe we'll look in other regions and what they do to kind of address that problem. And maybe that's a problem that needs some research, to put behind that question to answer that question. And so, we will do some on-farm research in partnership with a farmer to try and answer some of those questions.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (16:44)
Rosalie shares a similar view to Dr. Pindar on what our future will look like if we don’t act now to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Rosalie Gillis-Madden (16:51)
Already, we're seeing the effects of climate change, like every day in agriculture. So, we talked about 10 to 15 years, and a lot of people think of climate change has been in the future. But really, it's happening right now we're getting those intense rain events, we're getting those longer periods between rain events, big storms blowing up the coast. So the next 10 to 15 years, we're going to see a lot of a lot of not quite instability, but you know, things aren't going to be in the same patterns that they were you know, and that's a lot of a lot of agriculture, you kind of base it off, oh, I think I'm gonna be able to plant my crop in this planting window, I'm gonna be able to harvest my crop and this harvest window. And then when if you have unstable temperatures, or maybe a late frost or an early frost, it really kind of throws things out of whack. And that's just a hard climate to be farming in.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (17:34)
Considering this clear threat that our agri-food sector is facing, how ready are farmers to adjust their practices to better prepare for the future impacts of climate change?
Rosalie Gillis-Madden (17:42)
I think farmers largely see climate change happening and whether they agree that it is a long term, like climate change scenario, versus just the season being a bit weird. You know, we had a drought to two seasons ago, we had a frost on June 6 in the valley, which is super late for us. You know, you're starting to see some of these weird climate, climate, just these weird climate blips, I guess. And farmers are pretty attuned to the natural environment. And so most farmers that I talked to are aware of climate change, are concerned about climate change, and are looking for ways to become more resilient to some of these weird things that we have happening.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (18:19)
With this widespread acceptance from farmers that measures must be taken to address the impacts of climate change on the agri-food industry, what areas of focus does Rosalie propose?
Rosalie Gillis-Madden (18:30)
In terms of things that we can adopt regionally to help mitigate some of the effects of climate change focusing on soil health is a main one. So, a healthy soil is a resilient soil. So that means that it's going to be able to bounce back from a disturbance or withstand disturbance and still function in a healthy way that can sustain crop life. So that has been something that we have been encouraging and pushing farmers to think about a soil health. And so, there's a lot of facets to soil health, but some of it is that it improves soil water holding capacity. So, if we do get a big rain event, that means the soil is going to be able to take that up as opposed to the water running off or shooting off the soil surface. And that also means that improved soil water holding capacity also means that if you do have a bit of a drought, then your crops are better able to withstand that drought because there's water available in that soil for longer. So, soil health really is a key part of building a resilient agricultural system in the face of climate change.
When you talk about agriculture, pretty much everything comes back to the soil. And that's why I always talk about soil health as being the most important piece of the puzzle. I mean, without soil health, your puzzle just doesn't really come together. And so, like that's kind of like the keystone of a resilient agricultural system.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (19:48)
Rosalie points to another interesting project underway at Perennia that focuses on carbon sequestering for farmers. What is carbon sequestration? Simply put, it’s the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide and is one method used to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It can help restore degraded soils, which can help improve agriculture productivity.
Rosalie Gillis-Madden (20:13)
Right now, we're really excited to be the recipients of the On-Farm Climate Action Fund. And so, this is a project that's specifically focused on helping farmers sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is a program through the Federal Government of Canada, and we're servicing the serving the farmers in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. So, in the next two years, we're gonna be working closely with farmers in these two provinces to implement some best management practices around nitrogen management, cover cropping and rotational grazing.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (20:43)
For those that are unfamiliar, cover crops are plants that are planted to cover the soil rather than for the purpose of being harvested. Cover crops manage soil erosion, soil fertility, soil quality, water, weeds, pests, diseases, biodiversity and wildlife in an agroecosystem.
Rosalie Gillis-Madden (21:01)
Cover crops and soil health definitely fall within the realm of nature-based solutions. It's about taking these natural processes and encouraging them to perform to the best of their ability. So, a functioning soil is going to be sequestering carbon. And so, it's just about helping that soil sequester as much carbon as it can, through putting on cover crops or maybe, you know, building soil health with other things like incorporating manures, or compost and that sort of stuff. So those are very nature-based solutions to help sequester carbon.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (21:35)
So, we know our farmers are looking to learn and implement new techniques to improve their agricultural resilience. How do they take that first step?
Rosalie Gillis-Madden (21:43)
At Perennia, we do a lot of knowledge mobilization. So that's a big piece of, of our agricultural extension division, our Field Services Division is that we do a lot of knowledge mobilization. So, we have a lot of workshops, we have instructional YouTube videos on how to say, incorporate cover crops into your crop rotation, that sort of stuff. And we have seen the cover crop acres increase in the province over the last, 5 - 10 years, because of a lot of the efforts that perennial specialists have been undertaking as well as some of the other agronomist in the province.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (22:15)
With opportunities for further research in mind, Rosalie sees cover cropping as a clear choice.
Rosalie Gillis-Madden (22:20)
I think there could be a ton of research done on cover crops in applied settings. We already know there's lots and lots of research out there that says cover crops are good for soil health cover crops are good for sequestering carbon, they're good for taking up some of the residual nitrogen that's leftover after your cash crop, like we know this about cover crops. The challenge right now is how to integrate those cover crops into a farming system. And I think more research devoted to things like that how to make some of these best management practices that have been developed in the labs or like on research farms, how to make those applicable to an actual farming system where a farmer needs to be conscious about the number of times he's going over a field where the farmer needs to be conscious about the amount of labor that's going into a crop and seed costs and all of these other like super important pieces of being a successful and viable farm.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (23:12)
I was really surprised to learn that most, if not all farms, are conducting some form of research themselves.
Rosalie Gillis-Madden (23:19)
If you talk to farmers, most of them are already conducting research on their farm. So maybe they're planting a couple of different varieties just to see which one works best for them. So, all farms really are research farms, it's just a matter of how public the information that they collect from that research that they do. So that's one of the reasons it's really nice to partner with, with other organizations. And some of that information is captured. So, the same two farms don't do the same research, you know, they can learn from each other's experiences.
If farmers in Nova Scotia are interested in adopting some of these best management practices that we've talked about today, they can reach out to perennial check out our website perennia.ca. Give it a Google and we'll be able to help you implement some of these best management practices on your farm. So, we're here to help.
Narrator: Rhys Waters (24:06)
Climate change is impacting the agriculture sector around the world. Through our conversations with Dr. Alana Pindar and Rosalie Gillis-Madden, we have explored different perspectives on what farmers can do to mitigate the effects today, opportunities for future research, and the role we all play in helping ensure a thriving agriculture sector in the future.
By increasing agricultural resilience, we can help improve crop quality, stabilize yields and incomes for farmers, as well as help improve the health of those who rely on and consume their crops. This issue is directly linked to our collective food security and what we do today is critical, and research will continue to play a vital role in the identification and implementation of new, innovative solutions.
From researchers like Rosalie Gillis-Madden and Dr. Pindar to farmers testing new approaches in their fields, we need ongoing collaboration to ensure we’re prepared for future climate impacts.
Dr. Alana Pindar (25:01)
We have to think small, and we have to think local, and it's more important than ever, if we're going to mitigate climate change. Bees typically only fly one to two kilometers, so if they're found in your fields, we have to protect what's there, because they're probably nine times out of ten nesting in that field, and they're providing that free service.
Rosalie Gillis-Madden (25:24)
There's a lot of really exciting funding and programming coming from the federal and the provincial government. So, I mentioned the living labs initiative. So that's, that's big money from the federal government. And also, the On-Farm Climate Action Fund, is also just really exciting on the ground solutions to some of the challenges that we're facing with climate change. And then there's also a lot of really great provincial programming available as well, clean tax. The Clean Tech program from the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture is one of the most innovative funding programs that I've ever seen in my time here in Nova Scotia. So, there's a lot of opportunity right now to, to move the conversation forward on climate change and agricultural resiliency.
NARRATOR: Rhys Waters (26:10)
Thank you for listening to Beyond Research brought to you by Research Nova Scotia.
We would like to extend a special thank you to our guests Dr. Alana Pindar and Rosalie Gillis-Madden.
To learn more about the research heard on this podcast visit researchns.ca/beyondresearch.
I’m your host Rhys Waters and we’ll see you next time.
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Dr. Alana Pindar is the Weston Family Visiting Professor in Ecosystem Health and Food Security, appointed at Cape Breton University. Dr. Pindar is an entomologist with an expertise in pollinators.
Rosalie Gillis-Madden is the On-Farm Climate Action Fund Technical Project Manager at Perennia Food and Agriculture. Rosalie is a resource to producers on all aspects of vegetable production.