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As world leaders meet to discuss climate change in Paris, the headlines are being dominated by carbon taxes, clean energy, the future of the oil sands and coal. One economic sector, agriculture, is overshadowed by these more obvious polluters – which is odd, given that food and farming systems are both major emitters of greenhouse gases and particularly vulnerable to climatic shifts.

According to recent research, our food and farming systems contribute approximately 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of this occurs on farms and comes either from livestock manure or from the fields themselves, where soil-bound organic matter decomposes after plowing. Inputs are the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in this sector – it takes huge amounts of energy to produce nitrogen fertilizer. Disposal of the world's food waste (approximately 30 per cent of global food supply is never eaten) is especially problematic, since food in landfill often decomposes anaerobically, producing methane that is much more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of atmospheric warming.

Agriculture is vulnerable to changing weather patterns and many regions are expected to experience more frequent and intense droughts. Strong evidence suggests that climate change is exacerbating California's drought, as well as droughts in other parts of the world. But farmers are vulnerable to any changing weather pattern. Ontario residents may remember the unseasonably warm early spring of 2012, when apple trees blossomed in March. Frosts returned in April, ruining Ontario's crop.

Over all, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the United Nations body responsible for summarizing the scientific evidence on this topic) expects that climate change will cause significant yield declines in almost every region of the world during the 21st century. Canada might benefit from a longer growing season, but many researchers caution that anticipating bounty for Canadian farmers could be misplaced optimism. Extra warmth might help Prairie farmers, but it might also lead to new pest problems and a loss of soil moisture that is not accounted for in climate models.

Throughout history, agricultural problems have acted as catalysts that trigger widespread social and humanitarian crises. For instance, the French Revolution came after El Nino caused harvest failures that sent waves of migrants to Paris, where they protested food prices. The Rwandan genocide, which emerged out of the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis, was caused by many things including environmental degradation, drought, poverty and economic changes that triggered the migration that brought these groups together into one of humanity's darkest chapters. Even when ethnic tensions or political revolutions do not emerge, cases such as the Dust Bowl years or the Irish potato famine illustrate the consequences when things go wrong with our food systems.

To dismiss these problems as too distant to be relevant to Canadians would be unwise. Many experts believe that the Syrian civil war and the resulting refugee crisis, both of which have directly involved Canada, were in part triggered by a massive drought that devastated Syria between 2006 and 2009. Scientists have used sophisticated modelling to conclude that the scale and magnitude of this drought would have been unlikely in the absence of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Many conclude that this drought was one of the factors that undermined rural economies, causing farmers to abandon their land and flood to Syria's ill-equipped cities, where they became upset at political corruption and rife inequalities.

Of course, it is entirely too simplistic to ascribe the turmoil in the Middle East to a climate trigger. But it is necessary to understand that unpredictable weather patterns hurt farming systems, and this was a factor in the current situation.

Despite this apocalyptic tone, climate change may actually present Canada, and the Canadian food and farming sector, with unique opportunities.

First of all, we can invest in research to create climate-resilient food and farming systems that use far less energy and produce far fewer greenhouse gases. Doing this will require bringing the digital revolution to our farms and food processors. Satellite-guided tractors equipped with sensors to measure soil moisture and nutrient content can help farmers produce more food with fewer inputs and be less vulnerable to drought. Innovations in food science can create novel products for consumers that are nutritious and less taxing on the environment to produce. And advanced genomics technologies can provide the tools to monitor and control the spread of pests and pathogens and can help governments establish a bio-surveillance and bio-security shield to protect consumers.

Simultaneously, we must be much more ambitious in our development targets and establish grassroots partnerships in poorer parts of the world where food security and farm livelihoods are particularly vulnerable to climate change. This is because the digital technologies that can revolutionize food and farming systems in North America are unlikely to provide meaningful benefits to small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. In such places, we must adopt a participatory paradigm to working with a range of stakeholders in order to develop local solutions to local problems.

In other words, gender equity, capacity building and empowering the marginal are as crucial as research and development for feeding the future.

By adopting both a bottom-up and a top-down approach, we can position Canada at the forefront of the next agricultural revolution and lead the world in developing the necessary bio-intelligence. We have to ensure that our food and farming systems help resolve the climate problem, instead of simply contributing to it.

Evan Fraser is Canada Research Chair in the University of Guelph's geography department. Sylvain Charlebois is professor of food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph. Both are affiliated with the university's Food Institute.

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