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The Climate-Driven Agricultural Frontier

Positionality statement: Hello, my name is Hayley Brackenridge and my pronouns are she/her. I identify as a white settler of what is currently known as Canada, with mixed European descent. I live in what is currently Guelph Ontario, the territory of Mississauga peoples and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. I moved here from my hometown of what is currently Millbrook Ontario, which is also Mississauga territory. I wish to acknowledge and thank the Mississauga peoples who cared for the land before my family settled on it, contributing to its bounty and fertility which has fed four generations of farmers. Miigwetch. In this post, I do not wish to speak for Indigenous peoples and those with experiences that I have not lived, but rather lessen the burden of translation exhaustion. I acknowledge that, without the lived experiences, I may not always get it right, but I am committed to unlearning and learning.

The rapidly warming climate in what is currently known as Canada is creating new opportunities for agriculture in previously-barren northern regions. While these climate-driven agricultural frontiers may be an opportunity to combat global food insecurity, they have potentially negative social and ecological ramifications.

Canada’s climate has warmed 1.7 degrees Celcius in the last 70 years (2.3 degrees Celcius in Northern Canada) and is projected to increase more than 6 degrees Celcius by the late 21st century under a high emissions scenario (1). As Canada’s climate shifts, so does the suitable range for cultivated crops. Recent work by Hannah et al. (2) estimates that 4.2 million square kms across what is known as Canada will be newly suitable for crops by 2080 under current climate trends. The majority of these so-called “climate-driven agricultural frontiers” will be found in areas of higher altitudes and latitudes (3). World wide, it is estimated that an area equivalent to over 30% of current agricultural land will be potentially arable (2). While these models incorporate factors such as temperature and rainfall, there are other considerations that will affect the feasibility of cultivating these new agricultural frontiers, including soil type and topography (2). Nonetheless, there is a potential for vast amounts of agricultural development in northern regions of Canada in upcoming years, which warrants special consideration of the consequential ecological and social impacts.

Cultivation of Canada’s new agricultural frontiers is expected to have important environmental consequences, including the loss of climate services (i.e. reduction in carbon storage), downstream pollution by agricultural inputs, degradation of natural habitats, and a resulting loss of biodiversity (2). Although it is difficult to quantify these predicted effects, it is known that globally, these new frontiers contain 56% of biodiversity hotspots, 22% of endemic bird areas, and 13% of key biodiversity areas (2). As well, there is an estimated 632 Gigatons of carbon (GtC) within the top 1 metre of soil found within the new agricultural frontiers (2), 25-40% of which would be released within 5 years of plowing (4). To put this into perspective, the upper estimate of carbon release from newly cultivated frontiers is 177 GtC which is more than ⅔ of the 263 GtC global constraint required to meet the Paris agreement target of no more than 2 degrees Celcius global warming (2).

In addition to potential environmental effects from cultivating Canada’s agricultural frontiers, there are direct and indirect social implications. Although it has not been explicitly quantified, it is assumed that development of Canada’s agricultural frontiers will disproportionately affect Indigenous communities, specifically Métis and northern First Nations (2, 5). Affected communities may experience shifts in the ranges of traditional plant medicines and hunted game as a result of surrounding habitat degradation (2). Water quality may change downstream of newly cultivated land, impacting human health through drinking water contamination or altered fishery productivity (2). Currently, there are 57 long term drinking water advisories in First Nations across Canada (some of which have been in place for 24 years) (6). It is realistic to be concerned over the potential damage of Indigenous culture, health, and food security created by cultivating Canada’s agricultural frontiers.

Despite the social and ecological concerns over cultivating the agricultural frontiers in Canada, these new production opportunities could reduce food insecurity, especially in marginalized communities such as Indigenous populations in northern Canada. The same models that predict a 30% expansion of global suitable crop land also estimate that 0.2% of existing arable land will become unsuitable for crops without intensive inputs (2). A net loss of arable land would be detrimental to global food security as the world must produce 70% more food by 2050 to meet the demand of a growing population (7-9). Within Canada, a 2005 survey found that 27% of Indigenous households were food insecure, compared to 11% among the general population (10). Food insecurity for Indigenous peoples is driven by economic and cultural constraints, including lack of access to traditional foods due to unavailability at urban grocery stores, loss of traditional knowledge, and anthropogenic-driven loss of species (11,12). Although the biggest cause of food insecurity amongst Indigenous populations is colonialism, opportunities for cultivating agricultural frontiers may alleviate some constraints to food accessibility, especially in the north, and facilitate reconnection with the land.

Cultivation of Canada’s agricultural frontiers may be integral in combating global food insecurity, however, special considerations must be made to ensure it is done with ecological and social care. Before cultivation, ecosystems should be assessed for their suitability as crop land. Areas should not be farmed if they are in close proximity to sensitive ecosystems such as wetlands, are home to species at risk, or contain peat soils, which degrade when disturbed (2). Additionally, the land should be suitable for permaculture or crop rotation of at least three species. These and other regenerative agriculture strategies, such as reduced tillage and cover cropping, could prevent large amounts of soil carbon loss (13).

Foremost, cultivation of agriculture frontiers must make local communities, especially Indigenous communities, the primary beneficiaries of production (2). Historically, agriculture in Canada has perpetuated systemic racism by creating barriers to prevent the success of Indigenous farmers. This included laws preventing Indigenous peoples, primarily First Nations, from engaging with the national market without permits, restricting their acreage and crop type, and providing inadequate support - just to scratch the surface (14,15). For many First Nations cultures, farming was traditionally practiced before the arrival of European colonizers and therefore Indigenous farmers may not want or need to be “taught” how to farm by non-Indigenous Canadians. To sustainably farm the new frontiers, Indigenous peoples should have the right to govern cultivation of their land based on their Nation’s culture whilst given equal opportunities to participate in the Canadian food market. Additionally, Indigenous communities should not be financially responsible for building water treatment facilities to combat water contamination from agricultural frontiers. Nor should they be burdened by the loss of traditional food and medicine species as a result of cultivating the agricultural frontiers.

Farming the new agricultural frontiers in Canada comes with important responsibilities to the land and the people. This exciting opportunity for economic, food security, and trade benefits comes with potentially disastrous consequences for carbon emissions and Indigenous welfare, and therefore must be carefully considered (2). Continued advancements into climatic modelling, ecological surveying, and regenerative agriculture will help guide principles for farming the frontiers. Ensuring the rights and wellbeing of stakeholders, especially First Nations and Métis peoples, will require they have a seat at the table in shaping any governing laws regarding cultivating this land. Food insecure Indigenous communities can and should be the primary beneficiaries of production in the new frontiers. Acknowledging this potential and planning early will help ensure cultivation of Canada’s agricultural frontiers is socially and environmentally sustainable.


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