Agricultural infrastructure for resilience against climate change

Publication October 2019


Introduction

Climate change is a significant challenge for agriculture. Climate change is creating obstacles to healthy and productive growth in an industry where large and small agricultural businesses are challenged in their effort to release less greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and consume less water resources. In this article, we look at innovations in the agricultural industry that improve resiliency and adaptability in agricultural infrastructure in a time of ever increasing global climate change concern. We also touch on the advantages of PPPs for paying for climate change resilient agribusiness infrastructure.

Agriculture is a substantial contributor to greenhouse gases and uses a significant amount of freshwater. The global focus on climate change and the growing number of climate catastrophes, such as extreme flooding in Ontario and Quebec in spring 2019 and catastrophic hurricanes in the US, show that we need to change our natural environments to adapt to the effects of climate change and change our built environments to effectively mitigate the effects of climate change. The infrastructure that we require to respond to climate change will have to be innovative and timely to respond appropriately. Some initial agribusiness infrastructure projects may be the expected ones, such as sourcing more energy from renewable alternatives, but others will rely on science, cooperation and innovation to ensure economic and ecological benefits, and food security, for the future.

The ecological and geographical diversity of the agricultural industry means that there are a number of potential resiliency structures that could be utilized to adapt to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has defined adaptation as an adjustment in natural or human systems in response to climatic stimuli or their effects which reduces vulnerability, moderates harm, or exploits beneficial opportunities. With the diversity of agriculture and the breadth of adaptation techniques in mind, this article aims to summarize some of the infrastructure which can be used to make agriculture more resilient to climate change.

Pre-Production Infrastructure

Water and soil are critical for agricultural development. There are many ways to increase agricultural sustainability through climate resilient infrastructure that protects water and soil, on both a small and large scale. One natural form of infrastructure which can protect both water and soil is a riparian buffer. This is a area which surrounds a body of water to create a natural filter for the water.

The area is zoned for different vegetative growth, which often contains forestry. The plants and supported soil act to prevent an accumulation of agricultural chemicals in the water source. The riparian buffer also serves to minimize erosion, ensure more even water drainage and decrease the impact of adjacent agricultural uses. A riparian buffer may also serve as a wildlife corridor. Riparian buffers increase plant and animal diversity by ensuring access to clean water and allowing natural vegetative growth.

Climate change is expected to cause variations in precipitation, including increased and exacerbated periods of rain and drought. Canada’s ChangingClimate Report, published in April 2019, speaks to these changes in rainfall and snowfall in Canada. During times of increased rainfall, there will be more runoff of fertilizers and chemicals. Having natural bodies of water protected with riparian buffers will mitigate the effect of agricultural activity on the surrounding water sources. An alternative to riparian buffers could be grade stabilization infrastructure which are man-made structures that control the grade of the land by creating artificial barriers, steps and channels between the agricultural activity and the body of water. These structures reduce erosion which can cause negative impacts on water quality.

Farming operators can also build retention ponds to accept rain and storm water during periods of increased precipitation. Diversion channels may also help to keep water sources distance between agricultural activities and water sources which could also minimize negative impacts on water quality.

Another natural form of resiliency infrastructure are shelterbelts. Shelterbelts are most commonly trees planted to protect agriculture from extreme weather. The trees minimize the effects of strong winds and rainfalls which cause erosion to crops. Trees also provide protection for wildlife which in turn creates more biodiversity. Ultimately, shelterbelts help to mitigate the effects of extreme weather while also allowing for carbon sequestration and improved crop yields.

Both riparian buffers and shelterbelts are pre-production infrastructure projects that protect water quality and soil quality in the face of extreme weather conditions and changes. Wind and flood damage can be mitigated by building these infrastructure projects into agricultural plans. This infrastructure also helps to restore natural ecosystems, which are naturally more resilient to climate change, around agricultural land use for ecological and economic benefit.

On a more macro scale, climate resilient water management is a key component in creating sustainable agribusiness. Water management is critical especially as it relates to floods and droughts as these extreme events create significant impacts on the agri-food business.

Production

There are a number of ways for the agricultural industry to improve their farming techniques to create more sustainable enterprises. These techniques improve soil health, reduce water and energy consumption, reduce chemical and fertilizer dependency, and reduce a farm’s ecological footprint and effects on climate. Organic agriculture farming techniques result in increased use of renewable energy, improved soil health practices, proper irrigation access and improved water management. These practices also encompass efficient or no use of fertilizers and chemicals which has a positive knock on effect for the ecology surrounding the farming operation. Zero tillage or low tilling farming allows nutrients to remain in the soil and improves carbon sequestration. Farming operations may also consider switching to crops and livestock that are more resilient and suitable for future conditions. Micro, drip or precision irrigation can be manually or automatically controlled, even down to individual plants, and thereby significantly increases irrigation efficiency and provides substantial water savings.

In the wake of changing climate, energy use will be difficult to monitor and will be highly variable in response to changing weather patterns. Installing alternative energy sources may mitigate some of the issues with traditional energy sources. Alternatives are less likely to contribute to climate change, in the long term, and may be more affordable. Wind turbines, solar panels and hydro are example of alternative energy sources that are promising for creating resilient agribusiness infrastructure.

Livestock will be impacted by changing global temperatures and experience increased temperatures and heat stress. Changes to their body temperature negatively affects their ability to produce eggs, milk, fur and meat. To adapt, animal enclosures and infrastructure will benefit from modifications to allow for more air circulation, greater access to foraging, and reduced livestock density. In addition, livestock will increasingly require structures to protect them from climate extremes. For example, barns with air conditioning will give animals greater resiliency to increased temperatures.

Vertical agriculture is another opportunity to create more resilient growing operations as it may use less resources and have less impact on the land. Vertical agriculture may also be less susceptible to the changing climate and degraded soil conditions. Similar to vertical agriculture, hydroponic and aquaponics may increase growth efficiency and adaptability of crops. Finally, mixed crop-livestock farming allows operations to mix their investments of time and resources into a number of different revenue sources which will decrease risk from climate change as each type of agricultural product provides a different revenue stream that may or may not be affected by climate change in a given year. Mixed farming is also akin to indigenous knowledge which uses local and communal resources to adapt to challenges in farming. Such mixed farming or enhanced crop rotations may also improve carbon sequestration and protect the health of the soil.

Resiliency may also be achieved through ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’ such as synthetic biology which can increase crop yields and combat climate change through biological engineering. The engineering creates synthetic life forms that are more resilient to the effects of climate change. Such examples are drought-resistant plants and seeds and reversing pesticide resistance so that the use of chemicals may be decreased.

Post-Production Infrastructure

Cover crops can be used after harvest to reduce soil erosion by wind and water, as well as maintain the farm ecosystem. Cover crops will also sequester carbon in the plants and soil.

Capture technologies for animal manure include developing alternate energy sources such as gas capture technologies for stored livestock manure to utilize wasted energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Waste reduction and sanitation systems will need to see technological and innovative advances in the coming years to appropriately address climate concerns.

Funding

High levels of investment are needed to develop, construct, operate and maintain resilient infrastructure, in every area, including agribusiness. Various governments, including the Government of Canada, has programs in place to support and promote resilient agriculture projects. For example, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has grant programs to help agricultural operations reduce their climate impacts and become more resilient. The Agricultural Greenhouse Gasses Program is funded by cost sharing with both the applicants and the AAFC. Support from the government may come as a cash contribution or as an in-kind contribution. Alternative energy infrastructure will also often be subsidized by the government.

International support through the UN National Adaptation Plans Program may also provide in-kind assistance to develop resiliency infrastructure. Similarly, New York state released a new climate change policy to reduce emissions which has grant programs associated to it. Such grants may be tied to achieving certain amounts of green technology, low emission levels or developing clean energy.

Green organizations insist that costs should not only be publicly covered bu that action and costs should be taken on by the individual producer. As some of the larger agricultural businesses are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and realize profits, many climate proponents argue that they should be incurring the costs of resiliency infrastructure. New York state recently released a climate plan which shares the burden of cost to reduce emissions between government and producer.

Public private partnerships (PPPs) can be a result of cost-sharing initiatives for resilient agriculture infrastructure. There have been many PPPs around the world that have shown the effectiveness of these partnerships in mobilizing funds to create resiliency in agriculture and long-term economic and ecological benefit. Thailand, India and Russia have shown good results from these partnerships and have reported on the benefits and lessons learned. As climate resilience becomes more and more an imperative around the world, it is likely that PPPs and innovative ways to partner to create value and long-term benefits while increasing climate resiliency will become more and more common.

Ultimately funding for climate resilient infrastructure will likely come from all areas – the individual, the corporation, researchers and government. All sectors should be on board to mitigate and adapt to the changing global climate.

Technology

Technology has a role to play in creating economic and ecological benefits in the agribusiness value chain, including resilient infrastructure to mitigate climate change impact. Advancements in artificial intelligence, system design solutions (e.g. circular economy) and orchestration technologies (e.g. creating efficient supply chains) can enable new agribusiness models and lead to increased food security through more productive, efficient, sustainable and resilient food production globally. Technological innovation is a key driver in the push for solutions to address some of the environmental, social and economic challenges and opportunities in the agribusiness industry.



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