The B.C. floods are a mere hint of what climate change could do to the food supply

Barren store shelves will refill, and farmers will rebound in the short term, says food security expert Lenore Newman. But the system just can’t take disaster after disaster.
Farms surrounded by floodwaters in Abbotsford, B.C., on Wednesday (Darryl Dyck/CP)
Cattle are seen on a farm surrounded by floodwaters in Abbotsford, B.C., on Wednesday, November 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Officials in Abbotsford, B.C. predicted the worst on Tuesday night, as a month’s worth of rain gushed over parts of the province in just days. Floodwater from the Nooksack River on the U.S. side of the border had poured onto Sumas Prairie, the rich agricultural land reclaimed from what was once known Sumas Lake. A vital pumping station was in danger, they warned, and if it failed, waters from the Fraser River would pour onto Sumas Prairie, too—an even greater catastrophe. 

On Wednesday evening, officials announced the community had narrowly escaped that scenario, after hundreds of volunteers and city workers built a makeshift dam of sandbags around the pumping station, easing the strain on it. 

Still, the area has been devastated, its dairy farms, egg farms and greenhouses swamped. Farmers were forced to abandon their farms, leaving thousands of animals left to drown. 

It was part of a horrific weekend for B.C., which is now under a state of emergency due to the so-called “atmospheric river” that dumped unprecedented amounts of precipitation through much of the province. In an extreme weather event many are linking to climate change, entire communities were evacuated; homes and vehicles were submerged; landslides washed out roads and highways; raging rivers destabilized bridges.

Lenore Newman, the director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, has long warned of the dire effects climate change has on food security and production. The floods in B.C., she says, are partly a consequence of inaction.

Nathan Sing spoke to Newman about the reverberations of the floods on B.C.’s food supply, the history of this key piece of farmland and the long-term implications of political inertia toward climate change. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you saw the reports on Tuesday night that the Fraser River could flood Sumas Prairie and the surrounding areas would flood, what went through your mind? 

That was the worst-case scenario, and I’m very glad it didn’t come. I was teaching in Abbotsford when the storm hit on Monday, and we had to close the university because the water came up really quickly. Right then, I knew there was going to be trouble, because the Nooksack River was incredibly high. When the Nooksack breaks its banks, the only place for the water to go is across the border into Sumas Prairie region where the Sumas Lake used to be, and because it is an old lake bed you’ve got to pump the water out to keep it dry. I expected there’d be some flooding, but the scale of it is much more extreme than I originally thought. 

How ruinous is this flood and its reverberations for the people who live in the area?

It’s heartbreaking. I have a number of students and friends who farm in the evacuated region who are off the grid. But farmers are tough, and I really do think most of them will bounce back and hopefully they will have a lot of government support and disaster relief. But farmers care about their animals and there’s a lot of animal loss today. Many of these farmers have also just gone through the heat dome months ago, and we can’t keep having disaster after disaster. We have to start hardening our infrastructure and our farmscape against climate change. If we have two or three states of emergency every year, we can’t weather that long term. The emotional and economic toll is too big. 

Abbotsford is Canada’s most economically productive farming community, with 1,400 farms located within the Sumas Prairie. What immediate impacts could the floods have on the food supply in B.C. and the rest of Canada? 

The main impact is to animal agriculture, but hopefully any shortages or price changes will be temporary. The bigger problem for the food supply chain is the loss of the roads and rail. Eastern and Central Canada are probably not going to notice this as much, but in Western Canada there will be shortages of some goods that are getting hung up here at the [Port of Vancouver] that can’t find a way around until we get at least one road open. This is a bit of a wake up call to how fragile our supply chain is, and that fragility cascades right back across Western Canada. Anything that comes off a ship here has to go on to the road or rail to get across the mountains and there’s only a few routes. Right now they’re all closed.

What food products were most affected by the flood, and how much of this food goes beyond B.C.? 

There has been a pretty massive impact to chicken and egg production. Most of the impacted supply would have stayed within the province. And while B.C. normally doesn’t get eggs, dairy, and milk from other provinces, they will during this crisis because that’s how the supply chain system works. There are other small-scale farms, but it’s the offseason right now. There’s reasons you don’t want your vegetable farm to flood, because floodwater is dirty and it’s really not what you want to talk your crops, but it will dry out. 

Grocery store shelves across B.C. are bare. Is this another case of irrational panic buying, or should individuals in certain areas be worried about food scarcity? 

It’s not entirely irrational, it’s just a bit selfish. We’re going to have trouble getting supplies to these towns for a little while, so running out and buying some things makes individual sense; the problem is then everyone does it. We need everyone not to hoard because this is all temporary, and panic buying everything only makes the problem worse.

Grocery story shelves were emptying quickly in Abbotsford after the flood. (Beverley Field)
Grocery story shelves were emptying quickly in Abbotsford after the flood. (Photo: Beverley Field)

Are cataclysmic events like this something that farmers and experts like yourself in the area foresaw? 

I didn’t expect for a disaster to hit now, and so fast. Farmers are resilient, and they expect the odd cataclysm because nature does that. The problem is the cataclysms, because of climate change, are coming too frequently.  Some can’t take the emotional toll of having a couple of them—and the thought there might be more—in the same year. 

The floodwater on the Sumas Prairie is coming from the U.S. side of the border, having overwhelmed whatever protections there are along the Nooksack River in Washington State. Do authorities in the two countries communicate with each other about these dangers and conditions of the infrastructure? 

There is a lot of coordination across the border to try and protect shared resources. Still though, the Nooksack is a river that floods, and it’s long been thought that we need to do a little more on our side to be able to handle it. There are a few weak points in the local system, where there’s dikes that aren’t quite up to snuff, so we’re not well protected from external threats. The Nooksack River broke its banks in Washington State, so that’s not in our control. But we’ve long known we need to improve our defences against that floodwater because the water doesn’t know the borders. It just comes at us and doesn’t stop.

Can you describe the area and the agricultural operations in the areas affected by the flood? 

The Sumas Prairie was originally a very shallow lake [with the same name] that was drained in the early part of the 20th century to create about 100 sq. km. of farmland. The Nooksack River diverted water into the Sumas Lake—the Fraser River sometimes backed up into this lake as well. So there’s a very elaborate series of dikes and a major pumping station to keep this all dry. The land is mostly used for animal fodder and for grass, it’s very good for that. It’s also excellent soil—you can grow anything there—but there is a lot of animal agriculture. Most of the animal agriculture infrastructure is raised above the lake, which is basically at sea level. 

During this flood, a lot of infrastructure, technology, and machinery was exposed to water. Most tragically, a lot of animals found themselves on shrinking islands of land. There has been mass animal death because there was no way to get them out. We had a lot of farmers put their own lives at risk to try and save their their animals, but the water came up too fast. that speed of rise really caught everyone by surprise. It goes to show how intense the rain was and how unusual it was—we’re talking about 200 or 300 millimetres in a couple of days—and all of that south of the border then came our way. 

A 2013 report from the City of Abbotsford claimed that if the Barrowtown pump station were to fail, it would “significantly impact food producers and food processing companies, and cause job losses which typically takes 5-10 years to recover.” The state of the pump no longer remains critical, but what would happen if it were to fail? 

Yeah, we dodged a bullet. There are four large pumps there, and on an average day one pump is plenty to keep the Sumas Prairie dry. During the flooding, even with all four running, we were losing ground. If the Barrowtown pump station failed—and it came pretty close—the Fraser River would be high enough that it would backfill the original lake. So we would have a lake where lake used to be, and there would have been very little we could do about that other than stand and watch it happen. We probably saw about a third of the original Sumas Lake suddenly returned, which it’s pretty damaging, but it’s not as catastrophic as it could have been. 

What are the next steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again?

We need help from the feds. We need funding for infrastructure repair to immediately begin the infrastructure improvements that we’ve long known we needed to do—strengthening dikes and flood control. We have plans that have slowly been rolled out, but we need to get on it. We’re going to need help with recovering our highways and assessing whether we need more links with the rest of Canada, because it’s very lonely out here right now. We’re on an island, basically, surrounded by ruin. And if it rains hard in the next few days that’s a problem for us, but it looks like it will be dry enough. All of this has to be a budget priority.

There is a political intertia that characterizes responses to climate change, even though disastrous natural events continue to occur. What will happen if the response to the global climate crisis remains reactive without many proactive solutions? 

If we all don’t do anything about climate change—which tends to be the case, despite having lots of fancy meetings—eventually the disruption to infrastructure will break our civilization. It will simply be catastrophic, and more than we can handle. We need to figure out how to pull carbon down out of the air, and at least not be putting any more in. We also have to adapt for the inevitable problems that we’ve baked in by totally dithering for 30 years. Certain things, like sea level rise, we cannot control. Some low lying nations will just disappear. We’re going to lose parts of our landscape that are too close to the ocean. We’re just going to have to live with that. We could have prevented that 20 years ago. We can’t now. Now what we need to do is make sure we don’t make it worse. 

How can the food system be made more resilient against climate effects? 

Anything we can produce indoors and locally, we should, especially in places like B.C., where we have lots of renewable energy that is carbon neutral. We can shorten the food supply chain by producing food locally; doing so is much more land efficient and it allows us to return some land to natural systems. We need to eat less meat or produce protein in different ways; we can’t keep clearing forest to turn it over to animal agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is also a good way to go where supply chains would allow the land to actually be a carbon sink again. Agriculture is one of the only areas where you can actually flip it carbon positive, because 40 per cent of the Earth’s land surface is used to produce food, either through field crop or through grazing.

Nathan Sing writes about food security and hunger issues in Canada. His one-year position at Maclean’s is funded by the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security, in partnership with Community Food Centres Canada. Email tips and suggestions to [email protected].