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Going to Extremes: Heat, Water Scarcity and Food

From farmer’s fields to the high arctic, from your morning cup of coffee to a glass of wine – everything we eat and drink depends on water. In the second episode of our summer mini season, we draw from our past interviews about water scarcity and its effect on our food supply.

We take a look at last year’s drought and withered crops on the Canadian prairies, and how melting permafrost in the arctic threatens traditional knowledge about food from the land and food security for the Inuit of Iqaluit. We hear how coffee farmers in Sierra Leone are cultivating the climate-resilient “Stenophylla” coffee species to bring it to market, and how crops like coffee beans and wine grapes are sensitive indicators of climate change — and changes coming to these industries.

We’d also like to hear your thoughts about our show in our What About Water Listener Survey. As a thank you, we will plant a tree through One Tree Planted for each survey our podcast listeners complete.

Guest Bios

Merle MassieMerle Massie

Merle Massie is an author, historian, farmer, and researcher. She is an adjunct Professor with the School of Environment and Sustainability and coordinator of undergraduate research initiatives at USask. Read more about Merle here.

Reg Lowe

Reg Lowe is an organic farmer located about 20 miles southeast of Moosejaw, Saskatchewan. Reg has been organic farming for about 25 years now and comes from a long line of farmers. He is semi-retired, and currently farms about 200 acres of the 9-quarter sections on his property.

Aaron DavisAaron Davis

Dr. Aaron Davis is the Senior Research Leader of Plant Resources at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK). Davis is the leading authority on coffee species and has traveled widely to countries in Africa to study coffee in the wild. His team at Kew is dedicated to the identification and understanding of the beneficial traits of crops and associated organisms, particularly within the context of environmental stress resilience and climate change. Davis’ work on coffee spans over 30 years, and includes the naming and classification of coffee species, molecular (DNA) studies, conservation, climate change and resilience, and sustainable development. More recently he has published research on the value of wild coffee species (and diversity) for the sustainability of the global coffee sector. Ongoing and new work includes the development of climate resilience methods and the use of wild coffee species for the development of next-generation coffee crops.

Daniel SarmuDaniel Sarmu

Daniel Sarmu is a Coffee Development Specialist from Kenema, Sierra Leone. He has worked in the development world for over 20 years, primarily in agriculture, helping small farmers maximize their profits in the coffee industry. In 2018, Daniel re-discovered the long-forgotten Stenophylla coffee plant in the hills of Sierra Leone alongside Dr. Jeremy Hagar and Aaron Davis. In recent years, Daniel has been writing Sierra Leone’s coffee policy and is putting finishing touches on it so that small farmers across the country can use it going forward.

Micah HewerMicah Hewer

Dr. Hewer is a lecturer and research associate in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at the University of Toronto in Scarborough. He is an environmental scientist, Canadian geographer, and applied climatologist who specializes in climate change impacts and biometeorology. Dr. Hewer’s research focus has been dominated by the study of tourism climatology and climate change impacts for recreation and tourism. Micah has focused on the relationship between weather and climate and camping, as well as zoo attendance. He has also explored the impacts of climate change on ice conditions in Ontario. Most recently, Dr. Hewer has begun to look at the impact of projected climate change on grape growth and wine production in British Columbia, Fraser Valley, and Okanogan Valley.

Janet Pitsiulaaq BrewsterJanet Pitsiulaaq Brewster

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster is the MLA for Iqaluit-Sinna, one of 4 MLAs representing Iqaluit at the territorial level. At the time of our interview, Janet was on leave from her role as Deputy Mayor of Iqaluit.

Photo Credit

Merle Massie – Jen Quesnel
Aaron Davis – Kew Royal Botanic Gardens
Daniel Sarmu – Submitted
Micah Hewer – Photo courtesy of Micah Hewer
Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster – Submitted

Full Transcript

Merle Massie:
This year the rain just didn’t come. Didn’t come. Didn’t come. We seeded into dust, and it wasn’t just regular dust. It was that fluffy dust. You know, that really awful dust?…Yeah. When we had no rain, no rain, no rain, no rain and then that high heat dome that came across Western Canada, what happened was that the crop that had managed to germinate sort of desiccated right in the ground. It just never grew.

Jay Voice Over:
Merle Massie and her family farm near the town of “Biggar” in west-central Saskatchewan. Their crop rotation includes canola, wheat, and lentils. But as Merle says — nothing grows without water.

(Theme music)

Jay Voice Over:
Welcome to the summer edition of What About Water. I’m your host Jay Famiglietti. From farmer’s fields to the high arctic, from your morning cup of coffee to a glass of wine…Everything we eat and drink depends on water.

Jay Voice Over:
In this episode we draw from our past interviews about water — and our food. And look at how a changing climate is changing everything. We start with two farmers on the Canadian prairies who we spoke with after last year’s drought.

Reg Lowe:
My name is Reg Lowe. I’m an organic farmer. I live aboutm oh, 20 minutes south and east of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. I’ve been organic farming for about 25 years now. I’ve lived this way on the prairies and my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather.

We tend to take moisture as a blessing. I farm like it’s a drought and then I plant tomorrow like it’s going to rain. The weather is more extreme now than it was back when I can remember in my heyday. The last two years in 2020, we got 1.5 inches of rain for the full year. And that was in July. The year before, for three months in the fall, I got 15 inches of rain. Then from last year to this spring, there wasn’t anything but 1.5 inches.

In my particular case, an organic farmer, I grow crops that adapt to those situations. In my case, organics has saved my operation. If you do what you’re supposed to do organically, it’ll look after you. Like, I grow kamut, which is an ancient durum and it’s very drought resistant. It takes a little longer to mature, so it can maybe take a benefit like it did this year of some late rains. Also I grow flax, which loves moisture. So if I get a year with lots of moisture, I can take a benefit from that. That’s how I’ve adapted on my particular farm.

Merle Massie:
A bad drought year will change not only what happens within that year; it trickles down in dominoes into years to come.

Jay Voice Over:
Merle Massie farms west of Saskatoon. Before her, you heard Reg Lowe, an organic farmer from southern Saskatchewan. Farming and water are tied together around the globe.

In our last season, we spoke with Aaron Davis, a senior research leader at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Aaron is a coffee expert.

And he started noticing that climate change was putting a lot of pressure on the coffee species we mostly drink.So he embarked on a journey to discover why that was happening.He went to coffee farmers for some clues:

Aaron Davis:
I think when we started, there was this perception put upon us that actually farmers really don’t understand what’s going on. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In places like Ethiopia and Uganda, you have people that have been farming coffee for several generations in the same location. They not only know the yearly weather cycle, very, very well, the seasonality. But they’re able to go back three or four generations to tell you the changes that their family has perceived over those generations, and that corresponds incredibly well with recorded climate change. They live in it, their farms are in the coffee fields, in those environments.

I think the focus has been on temperature, and temperature of course is very important. But if you have water, you can grow coffee in California, Queensland, even now in the Mediterranean they’re starting to grow Arabica in Sicily. But that’s only possible with irrigation and you can achieve marvelous things with irrigation. As I’ve said, that comes at a cost. But if you speak to farmers, if they had water, they would be drinking it, using it for sanitation or growing higher-value crops, and I think the really important point here is that coffee for many farmers is not a high-value crop. It may be the crop that they depend on, but other crops have a higher value.

In Sierra Leone on the other hand, where we are working with Stenophylla coffee, and it was only because of historical references to an excellent taste and useful agronomic attributes that got us interested. And now we are starting to develop that species in that country with a view to providing a climate-appropriate crop for Sierra Leone.

Daniel Sarmu:
My name is Daniel Sarmu. I am a development worker in Kenema, Eastern Sierra Leone. I am currently in one of the nurseries where the Stenophylla coffee is being nursed for domestication. The seedlings are from the wild. At the end of the day, after obtaining proper research results, we’ll be able to distribute this to smallholder farmers who will cultivate it so that they will be able to make money for themselves and for the country as a whole. The Stenophylla coffee was cultivated and traded in Sierra Leone in the 1800s, but the coffee disappeared from the world nearly a hundred years ago.

It was rediscovered in 2018 by professor Jeremy Hagar, Dr. Aaron Davis and my very self. This coffee has proven to have excellent taste and excellent aroma. The roasters and cuppers have said that it is the best they have ever tasted. One good quality of the Stenophylla coffee is that it is resistant to climate change. The reason why I want farmers to start growing Stenophylla coffee is that it will really provide them a niche market, and will give them comparative advantage in terms of rights over all the other crops that they are growing in this region.

Currently farmers in Sierra Leone are engaged in the cultivation of Robusta coffee, which has a poor market price and as such, the farmers have abandoned their Robusta coffee fields, quickly transforming them into Cocoa fields, oil palm fields and rice fields, which is not paying them the dividend that they are really expecting.

I’m currently trying to help farmers in the forest-edge communities to search for the Stenophylla coffee in the wild and try to actually domesticate them. My hope and dream for the coffee farmers in Sierra Leone is that international research institutes or institutions, will be able to work on the Stenophylla coffee to make it a high yielding and early maturation crop, so that smallholder farmers will plant the Stenophylla coffee and will be able to have a niche market in the world, and they’ll also be proud to provide the world with good testing and good aroma coffee, very unique.

Jay Voice Over:
That’s Daniel Sarmu, a coffee development specialist in Sierra Leone, who’s working to bring the world Stenophylla — a tasty, climate resilient coffee.

Before him, we heard from Aaron Davis, a coffee researcher and senior research leader at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London.

Jay Voice Over:
From beans to grapes. Both coffee and wine require specific environments to grow well. And both are indicators of climate change which is forcing change to those industries.

To find out more about what the future holds for wine, I spoke with Micah Hewer, a climatologist at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. He went to school in St. Catherines, Ontario – one of Canada’s biggest wine-growing regions.

At first, he started looking at the effect of climate change on tourism. Then he expanded, to study what it means for vineyards.

Micah Hewer:
Because it’s such a new topic, really all we’ve been able to do is look at how climate change is affecting key indicators and critical thresholds for grape and wine. Things like growing degree days, things like extreme temperatures, heat, stress, freeze, damage, frost, potential.

And overall, what we’re seeing is that our growing season is getting longer. It’s becoming warmer. Um, and that’s, uh, that’s a positive. Within that we’re also experiencing greater heat stress. , so the number of hot days and what it really relates to in the end is that when we started growing, uh, grapes for wine production in Canada, we were considered cool climate viticulture.

And so we were growing specific grapes, generally speaking, a white wine, white wine was most, uh, suitable for, for Canadian viticulture. And, and that’s what we were growing. And that’s what was thriving here. But as the climate continues to warm, we’ve already actually transitioned out of cool climate viticulture classifications. And so growers are beginning to grow more red wine. And this has been seen in France as well. Uh, if you talk to two wine growers in France, they’ll tell you that Yeah, we used to grow white and now we’re growing almost predominantly red and, and that is stressing the need for adaptation. If we don’t adapt what we’re going to end up with poor quality white, and we’re going to miss the opportunity of capitalizing on high quality red that actually sells for a higher market value.

Jay Famiglietti:
Anyway, it’s a good thing that I really prefer red wine. So if there’s a silver lining, um, you know, that that could be it.

Micah Hewer:
This is true.

Jay Famiglietti:
Micah, thanks very much.

Micah Hewer:
It was a pleasure to be part of this.

Jay Voice Over:
Micah Hewer is an applied climatologist from the University of Toronto at Scarborough. His episode aired in Season 2. ‘Slippery Slopes: Canadian Recreation Meets Climate Change.’

From those slippery slopes to thinning layers of ice in the Eastern Arctic. Canada’s northernmost people spent thousands of years honing their knowledge of the land. They know where the permafrost sits, how the snow and ice thaw and melt where the icy sea water begins.

In Iqaluit, most people rely on country food: food from the land. The city does have one community greenhouse, and a barge that brings in canned and packaged food.

But still…even with subsidies, groceries in Nunavut often cost more than double what they do further south.

When I spoke about water with Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster last fall, I asked her about that. She’s an Inuk politician representing Iqaluit-Sinaa in Nunavut. I asked her how peoples’ livelihoods are changing, now that the permafrost is thawing.

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster:
There’s an, Inuit delicacy called igunaq, which is fermented meat – fermented walrus meat specifically. When a walrus is harvested, the walrus is skinned and deboned and the meat and fat of the walrus and the stomach contents are rolled into that walrus skin and then sewn back together and then buried and the beach usually close to water.

So the impact of climate change, of global warming and shifting permafrost, is that the places where we have traditional knowledge about preparing igunaq, about burying this meat, is no longer a hundred percent safe.

So we have this traditional knowledge about how to prepare this evil enough. We cannot no longer rely on that traditional knowledge about where and when to bury it at what time of year and for how long. Because what’s happening is the ground. The temperatures in the ground are not acting the same way that they have for the thousands of years that you knew we’d have been preparing this traditional food.

So it’s varied. You know, months, and then people go back and they, they dig it out and open it up and Ooh, the smell, if you like ripe cheese, you, it, it melts in your mouth. But, um, but if you can get past the smell, then, um, the taste is sublime. Uh, but so what’s happening is that the temperatures are not what they used to be.

So because the temperatures are different by a few degrees, what’s happening is bacteria and different parasites are able to thrive when years ago they wouldn’t thrive. And so sometimes that even now is not safe to eat. And there’s a potential for people to die. So there’s not only the human health impact, there’s, uh, an impact on the human psyche.

Jay Voice Over:
But what are the other ways the Inuit are affected? Janet told me that climate change extends into food security and the economy as well:

Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster:
I put nets out every year to catch our arctic char. And so what happens when I, when I pull my nuts in, uh, I clean the fish and I prepare them and then I load up a bin and I go around and deliver fish to elders. Or to families that, um, are food insecure and obviously to family. Right?

And so first in the first stop is always my mom, my elder mom. So when I am unable to harvest as many fishes that I normally do, then the impact on everybody’s food security has an equal impact on our economy, because we are now having to either recuperate the funds that we spent and then we’re having to buy food store-bought food, which we know is not as healthy.

So the impact on people’s health when they’re not eating traditional foods is that you maybe become less healthy and people who aren’t as healthy as they can be aren’t able to participate in the wage economy to the same extent as people who are healthy.

Jay Voice Over:
You’ll find my full conversations with Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster and these other guests at And if you like what you hear or have any feedback for us, we’ve created a quick listener survey to help shape our upcoming seasons of What About Water.

You can find it on social media or on our website.And for every completed survey, we’ll plant a tree! We’ve paired up with One Tree Planted, a nonprofit that’s helping restore damaged ecosystems, stabilize soil, and support the water cycle through tree planting.

That’s it for this episode. We record and produce What About Water? on Treaty Six territory, the homeland of First Nations and Métis people.

It’s produced by the Walrus Lab and the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan.

I’m Jay Famiglietti. Thanks for listening.