The Ontario Climate and Agriculture Assessment Framework: Assessing Agro climatic Risks and Opportunities

The information provided in this case study represents the results from a two-year research project (2015-2017) to develop and pilot the Ontario Climate and Agriculture Assessment Framework (OCAAF), a decision-support tool for application at regional scales to assess baseline and future agroclimatic risks and opportunities. The overall purpose of OCAAF is to inform the policy, program and management choices of key stakeholders in Ontario’s agri-food sector, so as to maintain or enhance agricultural productivity under a changing climate. The initial design of the OCAAF was tested and refined through application to two distinct areas and production systems in Ontario: 1. Forage-based beef production in Ontario’s Great Clay Belt; and 2. Corn production in southwestern Ontario. The project methodology involved four phases: 1. Development of the Framework; 2. Great Clay Belt Study; 3. Southwestern Ontario study; and 4. Adaptation Options and Policy Briefs.

The impacts of climate change on agriculture will not be the same everywhere, and impacts to productivity are expected to vary by region and sub-region. Spatially explicit tools to assess landscape-climate interactions and which can inform strategic adaptation choices at larger landscape scales are in short supply and do not yet include outputs from the latest global climate models. Climate data retrieved through this study reveals that temperature and precipitation trends in both the Great Clay Belt and southwestern Ontario have been increasing relative to historical levels, and that this trend will continue in the coming decades. These changes in climate will result in longer growing seasons, increasing growing degree days and crop heat units, and changes to crop yield. The results of this project provide information that characterizes the opportunities and risks associated with these two agricultural system-region pairings, currently and under a range of projected future climate scenarios out to 2050.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The OCAAF study used the “delta” approach (or “climate change factor approach”) to downscale Global Climate Model (GCM) outputs by following these main steps:

  1. Obtain baseline (“average”) climate data using daily CANGRD data for the specified variables for the 1981-2010 baseline period.
  2. Use the largest possible ensemble of AR5 GCMs to obtain the modelled average climate for the same historical period on a monthly basis (the GCM model resolution), re-gridded as necessary to a common resolution and scale.
  3. Obtain the future climate for each of the required future periods; every 10 years starting in the year 2011 and ending in the year 2050 (average future conditions of all the models for four 10-year periods) at the monthly timestep.
  4. Calculate the difference (“delta”) between the baseline and each projected future period which represents the change in the climate variable. Four climate deltas were produced (2020-, 2030-, 2040- and 2050-decade).
  5. This step addressed the spatial and temporal scale difference between the 10 km resolution and daily CANGRD data and the (approximately) 200 km spatial and monthly temporal resolution of the GCM output. The GCM delta (or change signal) is directly added to the high resolution CANGRD baseline period observed value which then corrects for any difference (or bias) between the true measured baseline climate and the modelled baseline climate, also generating a proxy high resolution projected climate variable for each future period.

Climate change creates both risks and opportunities for Ontario agriculture. Growing seasons are becoming longer and warmer suggesting the potential for northward expansion and creating opportunities for new crop varieties, while extreme events like intensive and prolonged rain and drought can cause immense damage to production systems and are expected to increase in frequency and intensity in the future.

Identifying Actions

Over the course of this two-year project, the Project Team undertook a number of tasks and conducted extensive research in order to build this decision-making tool. The work was divided into the following four phases:

  1. Development of the Framework
  2. Application to timothy production in the Great Clay Belt in northern Ontario
  3. Application to grain corn production in eco-district 7E-1 in southwestern Ontario, and
  4. Development of Adaptation Options and Policy Briefs.

Phase one involved development of a conceptual framework describing risks and opportunities to agricultural productivity. The first step in this process was conducting research and developing a White Paper that outlined the main considerations and eventual options for the tool’s development and served as a basis for discussions with key stakeholders. Phase two involved using the White Paper and Guelph workshops as a guide to determine criteria and indicators for the framework and conduct research applying OCAAF to forage-based beef production in Ontario’s Great Clay Belt, looking specifically at timothy grass (Phleum pratense). This required research to collect historical spatial climate data, historical crop production data from experimental research stations, and information on climate modifiers. Phase 3 involved applying the same methods used in the Ontario Great Clay Belt region in southwestern Ontario; a geographic region and crop system markedly different from the Great Clay Belt. During this second application OCAAF was customized to include region- and commodity-specific productivity criteria and indicators. Phase four involved the development of recommendations for policy and program enhancement in each region. Drawing upon the knowledge of the Project Team and other key stakeholders, a suite of 15 adaptation options were developed for the Great Clay Belt study, and 12 were developed for the southwestern Ontario study. Next, a series of three thematic policy briefs were developed to present recommendations from the research.

Implementation

Research and consultations with project advisors and other stakeholders led to the identification of 12 options for corn in southwestern Ontario and 15 adaptation options for forage in the Great Clay Belt. Example adaptation options for corn in southwestern Ontario and forage in Ontario’s Clay Belt are summarized in the Tables 1 and 2 below (respectively).

Table 1: 12 Adaptation Options for SW Ontario

Summary of the 12 adaptation options to manage risks and opportunities for grain corn production in southwestern Ontario as a result of climate change

Objective I: Encourage Water Management Practices that Mitigate the Impacts of Climate Change 1) Sustain/increase financial support for farmers to install tile drainage. 2) Promote the installation of controlled drainage systems on nontile drained farmland. 3) Ensure there is sufficient availability of licensed tile drainage contractors in the area. 4) Provide incentives for the installation of on-farm water harvesting and storage infrastructure. 5) Create a program to fund on-farm demonstration projects showcasing the benefits of subsurface drip irrigation. Objective II: Improve Soil Management Practices and Build Soil Health 6) Continue to research and promote best management practices that increase soil organic matter at the farm level. 7) Encourage the protection or creation of natural features such as shelterbelts, hedgerows, wetlands and woodlands. Objective III: Support Agricultural Research, Innovation and Knowledge Exchange 8) Continue to support applied research into different crops that are well-suited in the context of a changing climate. 9) Improve access and dissemination of information related to climate change impacts and adaptation. Objective IV: Encourage the Implementation of Adaptive Measures 10) Create a program to encourage adaptation in the agriculture sector and reward early adopters. 11) Promote and encourage farmer uptake in income stabilization and crop insurance programs. 12) Recognize the importance of achieving greenhouse gas emission reduction goals alongside or through adaptation.
Table 2: 15 Adaptation Options for Ontario’s Clay Belt

Summary of the 15 adaptation options to manage risks and opportunities for forage-based beef production in the Clay Belt region of Ontario as a result of climate change

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

Research and consultations with project advisors and other stakeholders led to the identification of 15 adaptation options for forage in the Great Clay Belt and 12 options for corn in southwestern Ontario. The main audience for the adaptation options are provincial policy advisors and program managers at OMAFRA, as well as other ministries dealing with natural resource management (e.g. Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry). Although aimed primarily at informing agri-food policy and programs, the level of analysis/assessment in the adaptation options provides insights for Ontario farming systems as a whole. As a product of the research, the adaptation options can help to broker further dialogue with other government agencies, agricultural organizations, farmers and local communities, further extending the goal of adaptation.

Additionally, a set of three policy briefs complement the OCAAF results on future yield and climate conditions and the adaptation options, and suggest ways in which provincial agencies might be able to support management of agricultural climate change risks and opportunities through policies and programs. Policy briefs provide a concise summary of OCAAF assessment results for each region and cross-cutting policy considerations to inform adaptation to climate change in the sector. Policy briefs integrate findings from OCAAF applications to both regions and production systems and draw on academic and grey literature. The policy briefs were developed for policy and program managers at OMAFRA, as well as others who are interested in formulating or influencing policy shaping agri-food in Ontario.

Next Steps

The results of the pilot application of the OCAAF in two areas and production systems presented in this report (forage-based beef production in the Great Clay Belt and corn production in southwestern Ontario) have expanded the knowledge of climate change risks and opportunities in those areas. With this information, key decision-makers in the agriculture sector can make more effective policy and program decisions in order to increase the sector’s resilience to climate change and effectively promote economic development in rural and northern communities. However, this is just the beginning of the OCAAF. Further development and expansion of the tool are needed in order to realize its full potential for agriculture in Ontario and beyond.

Application of the OCAAF to two different production systems in two different regions demonstrated how the tool is translatable for use with different agricultural production systems and transportable across different regions. The Project Team intends to seek out additional opportunities to further develop the OCAAF and potentially apply it to different crops within the same study areas, or perhaps entirely new regions and production systems. We anticipate that future application of the OCAAF will enable additional regional climate change risk-opportunity assessments for other crops and production systems across different agricultural regions in Ontario, Canada, and potentially the globe.

As OCAAF is further developed and refined, the tool could be made accessible to users through an online web-interface or a downloadable desktop application. The challenges of these design options were beyond the scope of the current OCAAF project; however the framework could eventually become accessible through either method. A web-interface would allow the tool to be easily shared and used by a wide audience, while the desktop application would be useful for those users who may not have access to reliable high-speed internet.