Climate change has devastating effect on fruit and wine industries in B.C.

Grape harvest lost

I’ve written several times recently about the costs of climate change.

Some of those costs are obvious, including the loss of homes, property, and infrastructure due to the increased severity of climate-related events such as wildfires, floods, hurricanes and tornados. Home insurance costs are going up for everybody because of those events.

One sector that is at a very high risk of impact from climate change often goes under the radar, and that is agriculture—the sector that feeds all of us.

The Canadian Prairies have been dealing with drought conditions for the past few years, and last summer saw southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and parts of Manitoba report significantly reduced harvests of wheat and other crops. In addition, a lack of feed for cattle impacted the beef sector.

One of the biggest impacts of extreme weather hit the fruit and wine industries in the Okanagan and other nearby valleys in mid-January. A long, mild fall and early winter had orchard trees and vines with rising sap, ready for spring, and then suddenly the temperature fell more than 20 C overnight. In one orchard, the temperature went from 2 C to -23 C in 12 hours.

The rapid change, from warm, almost spring-like temperatures to record low temperatures overnight, resulted directly from a warming climate. The polar vortex and mid-latitude jet stream are driven by the difference in temperature between the Arctic and temperate air masses. When the Arctic warms more rapidly than temperate zones, as is happening with climate change, the linear jet stream weakens and begins to wander in big loops like a stream traversing a prairie. One loop will bring unusually warm air north, while the neighbouring loop brings frigid polar air southward.

So, while climate change is often described as global warming, it can produce extreme temperatures at both ends of the spectrum.

Soft fruits and grape vines can’t easily tolerate temperatures below -20 C, especially when they occur so rapidly the plants cannot adequately adapt to the freeze. A recent sampling study throughout the Okanagan found essentially no live buds on grape vines, indicating a complete loss of the 2024 harvest. The direct financial impact of this loss is estimated at $440 million. Fruit growers face similar losses, especially cherry and peach growers.

This loss comes on the heels of a similar event in December 2022 that cut the 2023 grape harvest in half. Many wineries were reeling from that event when this freeze came along, and many have no insurance for this type of event.

The wine and orchard sector is a huge part of the economy of the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. These crop losses will have knock-on effects throughout the region.

There are federal-provincial government assistance programs that can partially compensate for loss of income in farming operations and extraordinary costs that are necessary after a natural disaster.

I asked the federal agriculture minister in Question Period last week to take action to help save this industry. I’ve also talked to the provincial agriculture minister to make sure she knows the seriousness of the situation.

Over the next two days, I’ll meet with both fruit growers and wine makers to discuss ways to get through the immediate financial crisis of a total crop loss, and what can be done in the long-term to make the sector more resilient to these catastrophic events.

One thing is becoming clearer with every passing season, we are living the effects of climate change and must quickly adapt to them or face serious and often unexpected consequences.

Richard Cannings is the NDP MP for South Okanagan–West Kootenay.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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