Unearthing the connection between climate change and food insecurity

The Peak talks with local farmer Parm Saini about the impact of climate change on crops

Food insecurity will only get worse the longer we ignore the climate crisis. PHOTO: Joshua Woroniecki / Unsplash

by Sara Wong, Arts & Culture Editor

Just a few months ago, BC experienced an unprecedented heat wave, which reached temperatures close to 50°C and resulted in 815 deaths. Health officials have now deemed it Canada’s deadliest weather event to date. Although June’s heat wave is behind us, it continues to impact local communities. In particular, for those connected to the agricultural sector, the recent climate events signify greater challenges to harvesting sustainably and combatting food scarcity.

 

Climate crisis case study

BC’s Okanagan Valley is renowned for its wineries and orchards. The region produces a variety of fruit, such as apples, cherries, and peaches. You can find all of these crops at Saini’s Orchard, a family business in West Kelowna owned and primarily operated by matriarch Usha Saini. The Peak spoke with Usha’s son, Parm Saini, about his family’s history with farming and how the industry has been directly affected by climate change.

Saini’s parents immigrated to Canada in the 1970s. His father was an engineer and had no intention of becoming a farmer, but his mother had other plans. “She always wanted an orchard of her own,” Saini recalled. “She grew up in a farming family from India, so she had that mindset that we could do it.” With a good-natured chuckle, Saini added, “When my mom wanted something, she generally got it.” Now, Saini’s Orchard has celebrated around 40 years in business.

In April 2015, when Saini’s father passed away, his “mom made it her mission to work even harder, and to occupy her time because she was lonely.” Because of that, Saini travels from his home in Metro Vancouver to West Kelowna every weekend to help out at the orchard. It was on one of these trips this summer, after the first heat wave, that Saini discovered how harshly the extreme weather had damaged his family’s apple crops. 

“If your skin is left unprotected and exposed to the sun, it will burn, and that’s what happened to many of the soft roots,” said Saini. 

Fruits such as raspberries, blueberries, and apples were spoiled amid the growing season. As a result, farmers across the province are dealing with smaller harvests this year.

According to a briefing from the BC Fruit Growers’ Association, provided to The Peak, “The summer heat has reduced the apple crop in the US and Canada, including here in BC. The

BC decline is projected at 15%,” which is approximately 4.1 million bushels.

June’s heat event was unfortunately not the only natural disaster Okanagan’s agriculturalists had to face this year. The record-setting temperatures made the landscape very dry, which led to one of the worst wildfire seasons in the province. This resulted in poor air quality from wildfire smoke and affected the health of farmworkers and their crops. 

A 2020 climate change report from the Central Okanagan, North Okanagan, and Okanagan-Similkameen regional districts warns “more intense and hotter fires, increasing water shortages, more smoke days, and a greater likelihood of spring flooding” will occur even more frequently if greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly reduced today. Without climate action, local communities, economies, and ecosystems will continue to suffer.

 

Food insecurity worsening

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Statistics Canada reported nearly one in seven Canadians were experiencing food insecurity. This was largely due to unemployment or underemployment. Here in BC, the effect could be seen at food banks and other charitable organizations, where the need for basic groceries skyrocketed

In addition to lack of income, the increased dependency on food banks can be attributed to inflation at supermarkets. Meat products have risen by 5–10% and wheat and grain products by 5–6%, CTV reported. Although the price of produce is cheaper, most of what’s displayed is not locally grown. The reason often cited for this is crop shortages created by climate change. However, back at Saini’s Orchard, Saini revealed there are other contributing factors.

“We do have food supplies internally and nationally within Canada,” said Saini, but added most of the Canadian food gets exported. The remaining food that stays within Canada rarely ever ends up in local markets. 

Around the world, heritage crops are being over-commodified, with avocados being an example. In Mexico — the world’s top producer of avocados — the government considered importing more of the prized product because it was becoming too expensive for local consumers. 

The reliance on commercializing crops creates further challenges for food security. Mexican avocados are now coveted by mafia groups, who use their power and influence to extort labourers and control international markets. 

As climate change continues to threaten the sustainability of treasured foods like avocados and blueberries, these sociopolitical issues will only become more apparent. Additionally, with this increase in exports and decrease in crops as seen on Saini’s farm, food insecurity will only get worse.

 

Action items

Here are some ways you can support local agriculture and efforts to combat food insecurity:

  • Donate to food distribution groups: monetary donations help organizations like food banks order a wider, healthier variety of goods. The Greater Vancouver Food Bank was mentioned earlier, but consider supporting hyperlocal groups like the Burnaby Neighbourhood House. Wherever you donate, make sure you do some research first to make sure you know where your donations are going.
  • Contribute to a community fridge: these mutual aid projects can be found in cities like Burnaby and Vancouver. The fridges provide a judgement-free environment for individuals to access nutritious foods. For more information, check out Burnaby Primary Care Networks and Vancouver Community Fridge Project.
  • Reduce food waste: Embark Sustainability’s food rescue initiative champions food security. The campaign, which redistributes discounted produce from Nesters Market, takes place weekly at the SFU Burnaby campus. More information on Embark’s programs and volunteer opportunities can be found on their website.
  • Contact your MP: if you’re concerned about Canada’s lack of action regarding food security, let elected officials know. Encourage them to support Bill C-290, which proposes more investment in soil health to help fight climate change and food insecurity.
  • Go to a farmer’s market: if you want to shop locally, farmer’s markets are the perfect place to go. There are more than a dozen across Metro Vancouver, and they carry artisanal goods as well as produce. More information can be found online or through social media.