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Adapting our Food Systems: A Primer for UBCO’s new Food and Water Security Course


Adapting our Food Systems

Food and water are basic are necessities of life. As the climate changes, individuals and communities that produce our food are being challenged to adapt to an uncertain future. Climate change may not be a dinner table conversation at your house, but it is already impacting what food makes its way onto your dinner table. We need to adapt our current food systems to mend gaps and strengthen our food security for the future.

I had the opportunity to talk about food and water security with Joanne Taylor, a post-doctorate researcher at the University of British Columbia Okanagan and the ALN Food and Water Security course facilitator. The food and water security course is currently underway for the first time with a wonderful group of participants. The following is a peek into what they are exploring in the course.

The interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.

Lessons Learnt

Joanne: First, I would like to pay homage to the beautiful mountains, lands, and skies and say that I am an uninvited guest of third-generation settler origin living with my family on the beautiful traditional lands of the Syilx Okanagan Peoples in the Columbia River watershed, where I am researching food security and climate change.

Austin:What inspired you about climate action and made you interested in climate adaptation?

Joanne:I have a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Anthropology, and I am a political ecologist, which means that I study how culture or society affects the environment in negative ways through societal structures of power and control, and likewise I study how the environment affects things like agriculture and food production and hence food security. My doctoral research examined food security and food sovereignty during the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty on the Creston Valley Floodplain, where processes of extractive resource development control agricultural and food production, so I wanted to see how that affected food security.

Austin:Could you describe food security? What does this term mean in practical terms?

Joanne:In its simplest terms, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization define the term food security as “when all people, at all times have both physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” But we know that it means much, much more than just this simple definition. In my Doctoral research, I define food security as also encapsulating food sovereignty and social justice issues such as who has access to food, gender equality in food production and respect of women’s roles and rights in agriculture, the rights for farmers to develop their own trade policies, environmental and ecological sustainability in food production, the needs of the consumer, protection from price fluctuations. To me, this is what defines food security.

Austin:How does food and water security relate to climate adaptation?

Joanne:Water is inextricably tied to food production. Climate change is severely affecting the water supply for agriculture, and that is something I’m looking at in my research. How can we ensure that future water supply is protected for food production? We ask what water security is and how it can be prioritized for local insitu food production. Each agricultural area deals with its own unique set of climate change challenges such as drought, flooding, forest fires, and pests.

Austin:How does water security play into food security?

Joanne:The UN defines Water Security as: “the reliable availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks.” If we don’t have enough water for agriculture in the coming years, our food supply will be severely affected. When this happens, our food supply will come under threat for the most marginalized peoples. Furthermore, Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s freshwater supply. And we are tapped out. The world is farming all the land there is to farm, and we can’t create more.

Food security is also intricately tied to economic accessibility. Financially secure people will continue to afford food that will become increasingly expensive due to climate change and water shortage. But those who have limited financial resources food will be inaccessible, and these people will be most affected. Globally 767 million people live in extreme poverty, primarily within rural areas of fragile countries where the rural poor are dependent upon agriculture for their livelihoods.

815 million people were hungry and food insecure in 2016. In BC, 20.4 percent of children aged 0 – 17 years live below the poverty line, according to Statistic Canada’s LIM (First Call 2017).

We are producing more food and feeding more people than ever before: enough grains, fruits, vegetables, meat for 3,200 calories per day and yet:

3.5 million children die annually from nutritional deficiency.

1.5 billion people are overfed (mostly from western diets)

Austin:What are some key leverage points within the food system that could develop resilient food systems?

Joanne:Covid, for example, has revealed some vulnerabilities to our systems, such as:

  • Labour shortages, lack of technologies such as indoor greenhouses;
  • Nations retreated from the global system and curtailed food exports;
  • A concentration of slaughterhouses and packing plants were closed;
  • Because of Rigid supply chains, linkage failures resulted in waste and shortages;
  • The economic status of farmers/ranchers suffered;
  • Economically marginalized populations were more vulnerable;
  • General lack of nimble adaptability, little resilience evidenced;
  • Some would say that “The whole food system is precarious,” “It’s very insecure.”
  • Our dependence on temporary foreign workers was made abundantly clear; Canada relies on tens of thousands of migrant workers — and open borders.

It bears mentioning that Canada grows mostly commodities on an industrial scale to feed animals and make biofuels for export. Most of the fruits and vegetables in Canadian grocery stores came from outside of the country.

But here in BC, our food system turned out to be quite resilient, notwithstanding the toilet paper fiasco. Smaller scaled, community-focused farmers, ranchers, and other food system actors demonstrated nimble and rapid ability to respond. In this moment of crisis, our small-scale farmers ramped up production, feeding more families. We saw innovation and expanded mechanisms to facilitate direct marketing through new outlets, bulk buying, farm-direct marketing and online orders. We saw seed suppliers ramp up as sales significantly increased. Local bakeries saw a boom in business, and so many took up home baking as a new hobby.

Austin:You also discuss Indigenous food sovereignty in the course. How does this play a role in food security in Canada?

Joanne:There are a range of complexities where food sovereignties are increasingly challenging Euro-centric accounts of food security by connecting specific histories, identities, and structures of power to contemporary food struggles across space and, crucially, to various forms of authority which incite resistance to the injustices I just mentioned earlier. But, as I outlined in my definition of food security, it necessarily includes food sovereignty tenants that directly affect Indigenous Peoples of Canada and their food procurement methods which I believe will ameliorate climate change while addressing issues of social justice such as land rights, racism, inequity, and food security for a changing climate. I also believe that Bridging Traditional Knowledge and Western Science is imperative if we want to address inequities and climate change.

Austin:Who can impact food and water security?

Joanne:As individuals, we can all impact food and water security by simply becoming more aware. We can look closer at systems that secure a clean water supply for our consumption and agricultural production. Communities that are environmentally and socially aware of the complex systems that sustain them learn to value and appreciate a holistic web of natural inputs that result in sustainability and resiliency.

Austin: What changes can the average person make in their interactions with the food system to enable food security?

Joanne:I believe we all must learn the basics of procuring local, nutritious foods with an understanding that we must be able to adapt to future climate change-related social and economic disruptions. It has never been more important to buy locally produced food to support farmers and our communities. Plus, we can learn how to grow food for ourselves. An understanding of where food comes from increases our value of food and could, in the long run, help us in becoming responsible for our own food security.

The Resilience by Design Podcast

ALN Course Information

If you are interested in the Food and Water Security course or more broadly in climate adaptation be sure to take a look at the upcoming courses being offered by the Adaptation Learning Network.

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