Diversification is the Only Free Lunch

Question: When does a housing development in St Petersburg, Russia threaten the future of Canadian agriculture? Answer: When it paves over the world’s largest repository of fruits and berries adapted to northern climes.

Conservation and food security activists have been called to arms over plans to develop upscale housing on the Pavlovsk Experimental Station near St Petersburg. The Pavlovsk Station houses a large, unique collection of horticultural genetic resources: strawberries, gooseberries, cherries, raspberries and many other small fruits. Totaling more than 4,000 varieties, the collection includes almost 1000 types of strawberries from which most modern commercial varieties are derived. Approximately 90% of the germplasm at Pavlovsk can be found nowhere else. The importance of this collection to plant breeders, particularly those in the boreal through temperate zones, can’t be overstated. This diverse pool of genetic material is needed to develop new varieties adapted to the ever changing complex of diseases, pests and climate variability that can threaten our food supplies.

This is yet another example globally of how we undervalue the biodiversity that is fundamental to our food, fibre and increasingly bioenergy supplies. And lest anyone accuse me of unfairly singling out our boreal brethren in Russia, Canada has no stellar record when it comes to concrete actions for preserving agri-diversity and cropping options. Case in point, in the interior of British Columbia where I reside, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada long ago closed the agricultural experimental station in Prince George in the name of austerity. The reasoning for terminating the only regional agricultural research support was that this area was on the fringe of agriculture and was well supported economically by the forest industry. Now in the wake of the the mountain pine beetle epidemic that is laying waste to a portion of BC’s forest industry, community economic development organizations are scrambling to reassemble regional support for the agricultural sector to help strengthen and diversify the economy. And they are finding that cropping resources and options, particularly for permanent agriculture, are limited.

And for those Canadians and others that somehow missed the lesson on the need for diversification that the mountain pine beetles have provided, spruce budworms or Douglas-fir bark beetles may soon be providing a refresher course.

The time to diversify is when you least think you need to, not in the middle of a crisis when resources will be stretched or gone. Agriculture in the north has not suffered a major production collapse on the scale of the pine beetle impacts to the forest industry, but the conditions for developing disaster always lurk on the edges. Temperature and precipitation patterns are shifting. New disease and pest outbreaks that can colonize a warmer future are a real possibility. We’re are already seeing new populations of spotted wing drosophila that could smack down our multi-million dollar berry industry. Oak wilt disease also has a foothold in Canada and is moving northward. The fallout from mad cow disease has sent the cattle industry into a decade-long downturn.

I can’t tell what the future holds for agriculture in the north (or the middle or south for that matter), but changing climate, pest and market uncertainty all point to the need for flexible, diverse production systems. Investing in preserving crop diversity and agricultural adaptation is an investment in managing the risks to food security, community and economic stability.

As a Vladamir Lenin look-a-like on the financial network CNBC is fond of repeating to the investment community: “Diversification is the only free lunch.” And so it also goes for the agriculture sector. Preserving and culturing diverse production opportunities will greatly lower the risks to agricultural producers and interruptions to global food supplies. And it starts with concrete actions at the regional level to preserve and expand the genetic diversity on which agriculture is founded.