Agricultural biodiversity is threatened.

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.

Future Food Production is at Risk

The Pavlovsk Station houses a large, unique collection of horticultural genetic resources. It holds more than 4,000 varieties of gooseberries, cherries, raspberries and many other small fruits. The collection includes almost 1000 strawberry varieties from which most modern commercial varieties are derived.

Approximately 90% of the Pavlovsk germplasm can be found nowhere else in the world. And, the importance of this collection to plant breeders, particularly those in the boreal and temperate zones, can’t be overstated. This diverse pool of genetic material is needed to develop new varieties. Varieties adapted to the ever changing complex of diseases, pests and climate variability that can threaten our food supplies.

Biodiversity Undervalued

This is yet another example, globally, of how we undervalue biodiversity. Biodiversity 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, they argued, it was well supported economically by the forest industry. Now the mountain pine beetle epidemic is laying waste to this portion of BC’s forest industry. And, community 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.

Lessons in the Importance of Diversification

And for those 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 do it. The best time is not in the middle of a crisis when resources are 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.

Invest in Diverse Production

I can’t tell what the future holds for agriculture in the north. Or the middle or south for that matter. But a 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. We must preserve and expand the genetic diversity on which agriculture is founded.