Watching the sky for rain clouds: Farmers and climate change

This week’s guest writer is Stephanie McDonald, senior policy advisor for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Stephanie also provided the photographs.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those who make their livelihoods from the earth these last few years and what climate change means to them. Two places in particular have shaped my thinking.

Heavy rains, Blantrye, Malawi
Rain inundates the Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission office, Blantyre, Malawi.

In 2010 I moved to Blantyre, Malawi in southeastern Africa. Approximately eight out of 10 Malawians work in the agriculture sector, dependent on the weather, and reliant on age old knowledge about when to plant and harvest their crops. The farmers I met spoke of seasons that had become unpredictable, stronger storms, and more frequent droughts and floods. While the phrase “climate change” wasn’t necessarily used, it was obvious to farmers that the climate was indeed changing.

A confirmation of this new reality occurred this past January when the worst flood in living memory hit the south of the country. The fallout was devastating: 106 people died, 172 people were reported missing, 230,000 people were displaced, crops were destroyed and livestock wiped out. Malawi is one of the poorest nations in the world which already had concerns about food shortages before the flood hit.

Three years later I was working full time on my family farm in southwestern Ontario, alongside my dad and uncle. We represented the sixth and seventh generation of farmers in our family working on the same land. For the first time in my life I too was intimately connected to the land and the area’s climate. I listened intently to weather reports and watched with either dread or thanksgiving as dark clouds moved overhead, depending on if rain was needed (or how much hay was lying out on the field…). For the first time I understood what it meant to be dependent on rain and heat and wind. In short, I knew what it meant to be a farmer.

Robert and Don McDonald, Glencoe, ON
Robert McDonald (Stephanie’s dad) and Don McDonald (her uncle) make plans for the day on their farm at Glencoe, Ontario.

While southwestern Ontario has largely been shielded from the impacts of climate change to date, I got a sense of what an unpredictable climate could mean for a farmer dependent on a one acre plot of land. As extreme weather events increase, generations of accumulated and passed down farming knowledge all of a sudden no longer applies.

The differences of course between the circumstances of our family farm in Ontario and that of a farm in southern Malawi are stark. In Ontario, we have up-to-the-minute weather reports from nearby weather stations, crop insurance insulates us in the event of a bad year, and social services mean we never have to choose between purchasing food and paying a hospital bill when a family member requires treatment.

Climate change is something that can be difficult to discuss. It can seem unwieldy and frightening, to the point where we feel powerless to enact change. But stories of the human impact of climate change from around the world and here at home–stories which are set to become more common–are a constant reminder that we must act, personally and collectively.

A farmer in a southern region of Malawi shows off her maize, grown using Conservation Agriculture techniques. Photo courtesy of Stephanie McDonald.
A farmer in a southern region of Malawi shows off her maize, grown using Conservation Agriculture techniques.

On September 16th we’ll celebrate the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, commemorating the day in 1987 that the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was signed. When it was discovered that certain commonly used chemicals were playing a part in ozone layer depletion, the international community rallied behind the creation of the Montreal Protocol. The treaty included a timeline to phase out the production and use of the harmful substances, and it has largely been adhered to. The results are clear: the ozone hole is recovering and it’s estimated that millions of cases of skin cancer have been avoided. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called the Montreal Protocol “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”

A similarly historical moment presents itself at the end of this year, when nations gather in Paris for the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference. The goal of the conference is to reach a universal, legally binding agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions that will keep global warming below 2°C. As nations gather in one of the world’s most affluent cities, we must call on our governments to remember the farmers around the world whose ability to grow food and earn a livelihood are already being impacted by climate change. For the Malawian farmer dependent on a stable climate to feed her family, and for the thousands of farm families across Canada who bring food to our tables–we must work together.

One thought

  1. How does the realization of the impact of climate on farmers impact food choices among privileged populations? Do food and agriculture policies in Canada/US also privilege particular approaches to agriculture or to particular kinds of foods? As one of the largest contributors to global GHG emissions, are modern food systems and industrial agriculture, particularly in the “developed” world, culpable for the kinds of crises being felt by farmers in the global South?

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