Technology Could Help BC Farmers Connect Directly with Consumers and Minimize Climate Change Impacts

Technology exists that the BC government could leverage to help small farmers connect directly with consumers and also mitigate climate change impacts, say new findings from UBC Okanagan.

Dr. John Janmaat and Dr. Joanne Taylor co-authored new research that examines how farmers in the Okanagan and Cariboo regions of BC are adapting compared to farmers in China's Shaanxi province. One of the key differences was how Chinese farmers used technology and social media, an option that's not as widely used in Canada, Dr. Janmaat says.

"Small agricultural producers in China are able to take advantage of online marketing to connect with consumers and to move their products," says Janmaat, a Professor of Economics in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. "When the pandemic happened here, Canadians were pivoting very quickly to try and figure out, 'Okay, what can we do now that we're shutting down farmers' markets, and going to visit a farm is probably not something we want to do?' The idea of moving online was pursued, but now that these pandemic protections have come off, it's kind of disappearing again. Whereas in China, it's central.

"We don't have in BC a centrally supported system of online, local produce marketing. And that's something that perhaps the provincial government could support."

Multiple barriers to adaptation existed in both areas, the researchers say. Limited technical knowledge and doubts about adaptation effectiveness were more serious in BC, while limited support from local government and normative expectations were notable in China. Education, targeted research and public investments in irrigation and marketing may contribute to addressing some of these differences, improving the resilience of agricultural climate adaptation in both countries.

The research was a collaboration with Lan Mu, a visiting scholar from Shaanxi Normal University, and UBCO doctoral student Lauren Arnold. It was Janmaat and Lan who struck upon the idea of comparing how Canadian and Chinese farmers are confronting climate change. They realized they were doing similar research, and wanted to bring their worlds together.

The researchers weren't trying to declare a winner, though, they just wanted to learn from each other. It's a simple idea, one that farmers have been using for time immemorial, says Taylor, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Economics, Philosophy and Political Science at UBCO. When farmers encounter a problem, they walk down the road to ask their neighbours how they're coping.

"We're just in the middle of climate change and trying to survive," Taylor says, "and there are farmers from all different levels of productivity that are trying to survive. For example, technology is certainly going to play a much bigger role in the way that we supply water, and in the way that we use water.

"That's just one example, but technology is certainly a very, very important tool that we're going to have to use and implement in the future, and there is a lot of research which has been going on, which will continue to go on into the future."

Tactics such as crop selection and marketing are not mutually exclusive between the two countries. Given Canada's more frequent, more extreme weather events caused by climate change, there are real impacts on food production now, Taylor says. From drought to floods to fires, farmers across the world are being forced to change how they grow food.

It's especially plain in Canada, where a smaller population makes direct marketing a challenge. The private sector may not see much return; however, the provincial government could play a role in making the venture worthwhile through funding.

"We need to draw attention to the ways in which we use water and the ways in which we use land for food production while supporting our agriculturalists and food suppliers," Taylor says. "But as far as the relationship between here and China, work needs to continue in both countries. We really need to nurture those relationships for the betterment of the global food supply."

The research was published recently in the journal Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change.


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