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Agriculture

Much of East Coast is one ‘perfect storm’ away from being cut off from Canada

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AMHERST, N.S. — First of a two-part series on the stunning potential impact that climate change could have on the low-lying, narrow band of land connecting Nova Scotia to the rest of Canada.

John Atkinson stands atop an aging dike, with the rising tides of the Bay of Fundy before him and family farmland behind, imagining the storm that could turn Nova Scotia into a virtual island.

“The water can go over this whole flat marsh,” said the 67-year-old landowner, gesturing to the grassy lands near Amherst.

“If there were to be one perfect storm … it would be very bad.”

This is a potential ground zero of a Canadian climate change disaster, where sea-level communities face rising oceans and await word on a detailed plan and the funding to keep the narrow land link between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick open.

The risk isn’t decades away.

Rather, the event could occur at any time through a combination of stormy weather conditions, according to emergency officials and coastal geographers watching the area.

“The fact is that the right storm occurring at any spring tide at any time of year would be sufficient to put water over our dikes,” explains Jeff Ollerhead, who teaches coastal geography at Mount Allison University in nearby Sackville, N.B.

Over the past 69 years, the sea level at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy has risen about 38 centimetres, even as the dikes and coastal land continue to subside.

The trend will accelerate under most international climate change scenarios, adding a third of a metre to water heights by 2050, according to studies.

Meanwhile, the frequency of hurricanes and tropical storms have tripled here over the past 25 years compared to the past century, according to a 2011 study.

Real Daigle, a meteorologist who provides estimates of sea level rise, said all it would take is a once-in-50-year storm at highest tides, with sustained winds gusting up to 80 kilometres per hour and low atmospheric pressure that adds 40 to 50 centimetres to the height of the water.

The one comfort is that the rapid pace of the Bay of Fundy tidal rise and retreat  — versus areas like the Northumberland Strait, where tide rises are more gradual and sustained — would make the storm’s arrival at the high tide in the basin an unlikely event, he adds.

Saint Mary’s University geographer Danika van Proosdij’s research unit prepared maps for The Canadian Press showing risk zones that extend into Amherst itself, floods of businesses and wind turbines on the marshes, and potential damage to 20 kilometres of rail, road and electrical infrastructure.

The waters could sweep over the Trans-Canada Highway in lower lying New Brunswick, reaching a waist-deep height for motorists, said Mike Johnson, emergency measures co-ordinator for Cumberland County, Nova Scotia’s westernmost region.

He says he’s planning to knock on doors and collect cell phone numbers of about 80 buildings where rapid evacuation may need to occur.

“We’ve had two tidal surge events in the past decade that would have been sufficient to overtop the dikes. They simply occurred on a neap (lower) tide and because of that factor the water didn’t come high enough to overtop the dikes,” he said in an interview at his office.

A photo he took in the fall of 2015 shows a CN rail train travelling on a dike that is about 8.5 metres above sea level during a tidal surge. The water was just 12 centimetres from the train’s wheels.

Amherst Mayor David Kogon and John Higham, the mayor of Sackville, N.B., are pressing federal and provincial governments to quickly find solutions.

“Our job is to keep their foot to the pedal,” says Kogon, sitting before a large poster depicting a partially submerged Sackville.

“If I were in charge of it, it would be underway now. But we’re not, it’s not our money,” says Higham, who joined his New Brunswick counterpart for an interview at his city hall.

Higham’s town is also protected by a network of about 26 kilometres of dikes created to protect farmlands, but which now shelter commercial areas and homes. His flood map depicts a provincial ambulance depot as stranded on an island after the inundation comes.

If the dikes are brought to new heights and repositioned to resist the rising seas, it wouldn’t be the first time the marshlands were rescued by a combined political effort.

In the 1940s, Ottawa created a federal agency that helped fund the rehabilitation of the marshlands.

However, the responsibility shifted to provinces in the 1970s, and there have been times over the past 50 years when money has been scarce for needed upgrades, say local farmers.

Doug Bacon, a cattle farmer in Upper Nappan, says he spent years fighting for improved aboiteaux — openings in the dikes with sluice gates that allow fresh waters to drain out back to the sea.

His home is full of photos of freshwater floods that came over nearby coastal roads and the grazing marshlands over the past two decades, as aging infrastructure was unable to cope with the flow of water.

He said Canadian governments should have led a plan for the dike rehabilitation at least a decade ago.

“The provincial and federal governments seem very slow to recognize the concerns that we as residents are trying to portray to them,” he said during an interview.

The potential costs and next steps remain as murky to Bacon as the often muddy waters of the Bay of Fundy itself.

Hopes are now pinned on an engineering assessment that New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ottawa say will “explore viable options to climate change impacts on the Chignecto Isthmus trade corridor” between the two provinces.

Kevin Bekkers, land protection manager at the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture, says a request for proposals to complete the $700,000 study will go out after April 1, with the goal of completion in 12 to 18 months.

“Fast is not the pace I want to go as an engineer. There’s things we need to confirm and this engineering assessment is one of those steps along the journey that has to take place,” he said in an interview.

The issues include comparisons of various climate change forecasts and what new technologies are available to increase the height of existing dikes, he said. Even the timeline for how long the solution should last remains uncertain, he said.

After options are presented, the governments must agree on the way forward and how much they will spend.

A 2016 federal study said possibilities ranged from $90 million to build up the existing dikes to $345 million to completely re-route the highways and railways. All of the options required at least five years.

Mike Pauley, the New Brunswick civil servant leading the engineering assessment, said he can’t flatly state the study of the trade corridor will result in upgrades to the dikes.

“To say the dikes will never be improved — I think over time, they will. But it may not be part of the outcome we get out of this study,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bekkers notes that maintenance is ongoing and solutions for existing dikes continue.

For example, a damaged portion of the dike near where Atkinson stood was being re-routed to tie in with higher ground and create more shallow lands in front — known as foreshore — that will absorb the pounding tides.

However, Bekkers acknowledges the risk of a tidal surge remains.

“We are working with Emergency Measures Organizations and depending on the storm that comes in, there may have to be warnings that go out,” he said.

Quite often, Atkinson walks to the shore and notices how the sea tosses up more driftwood than in the past, even as it undermines the giant slabs of rock put in place to protect the dikes.

To him, these are nature’s signals that the day of reckoning is drawing a little closer.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed no storm comes. What else can you do?”

NEXT: When the dike breaks.

— Follow (at)mtuttoncporg on Twitter.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

Agriculture

Officials flagged 900 food items from China with ‘problems’ over two years

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Officials flagged almost 900 food items from China

OTTAWA — Canadian inspectors intercepted nearly 900 food products from China over concerns about faulty labels, unmentioned allergens and harmful contaminants that included glass and metal between 2017 and early 2019, according to internal federal records.

The document provides an inside look at imports from China that caught the attention of officials for appearing to fall short of Canadian standards — from gum balls with “extraneous” metal, to three-minute chow mein that contained an insect, to spicy octopus feet flagged for a “non-specific hazard.”

The list, compiled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, was obtained through access-to-information law.

Its release comes at a time of significant public interest in Canada about cross-border food inspections, especially those involving China.

The scrutiny of agricultural goods has been central to a diplomatic dispute between Canada and its second-biggest trading partner. Bilateral frictions have intensified since the December arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver and China’s subsequent detention of two Canadians on espionage allegations.

The governing Liberals have come under pressure from rival Conservatives to respond by taking a harder line when it comes to Chinese imports.

In recent weeks, China asked Canada to suspend all its meat-export certificates to the Asian country after Chinese customs inspectors detected residue from a restricted feed additive, called ractopamine, in a batch of Canadian pork products. A statement by China’s embassy in Ottawa said the investigation uncovered at least 188 forged veterinary health certificates and argued the Canadian system had “obvious safety loopholes.”

Chinese authorities have also blocked imports of Canadian canola seeds, alleging they found pests in some shipments. The federal government says it has tried unsuccessfully to send a delegation of inspectors to China to examine the evidence.

The economic consequences of China’s trade actions on Canadian food shipments, as well as the detentions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, are widely seen as attempts by Beijing to pressure the Liberal government into releasing Meng.

The list from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency shows it’s not uncommon for inspectors to raise concerns about imports from China.

Between the beginning of 2017 and the end of February this year, agency officials “detected problems” with 889 food or food ingredient imports into Canada from China, according to the document.

Only four food shipments, however, from China were refused entry into Canada over that period, CFIA’s quarterly reports show.

An agency spokeswoman said CFIA investigates concerns to determine if it’s a hazard or fails to comply with Canadian standards. When necessary, she said officials take action — including minor label corrections, recalls, product seizure, entry refusals and the cancellation of licences.

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said in an emailed statement that the issues in the CFIA list do not necessarily correlate to a particular problem with imported food products from foreign countries.

“This is a list of cases reported to the CFIA that informs operational and follow-up activities to verify compliance and take any appropriate actions, in accordance with laws and regulations,” Bibeau said.

“The Canadian food safety system is strong and recognized as one of the best in the world and the government is confident in all products approved by the CFIA as safe for local consumption as well as for export.”

The list only provides numbers for China and does not include comparable numbers for Canada’s other trading partners.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer recently called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to step up inspections on all products from China and to consider slapping tariffs on imports.

Bibeau’s office has said Canada has no intention of increasing inspections on Chinese imports.

Sylvanus Kwaku Afesorgbor, an expert in agri-food trade and policy, wrote in an email that Canada would likely take a long time before implementing actions against Chinese imports.

“Canada will always play to the rules and exhaust all democratic channels available through international trade agreements such as (the World Trade Organization),” wrote Afesorgbor, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph.

“Any retaliatory action may result in trade war and that may negatively affect the two countries.”

Glenford Jameson, a Toronto-based lawyer with expertise in the food sector, said the CFIA list provides an extra level of detail that’s usually omitted from public documents. He added that none of the concerns flagged in the document are highly unusual.

“This list is a list that wouldn’t be surprising from any country, including the United States, and is really just a byproduct of having a stringent food-inspection and food-regulatory system,” Jameson said.

“No food commodity is traded at 100 per cent perfect compliance all the time.”

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press

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Agriculture

New immigration pilot will offer residency to some migrant farm-workers

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OTTAWA — A new three-year immigration experiment that will give migrant workers a path to permanent residency in Canada is getting a thumbs-up from industry but a thumbs-down from migrant rights groups.

Over the last several years, industries such as meat cutting and processing and mushroom farming have relied on seasonal temporary foreign workers due to labour shortages, even though the work is not seasonal.

A new pilot program announced on Friday aims to attract and retain migrant workers by giving them an opportunity to become permanent residents.

Currently, migrant farm workers who come to Canada through the program for seasonal agricultural workers are only given limited-term work permits and do not have a pathway to permanent residency.

Temporary foreign farm workers who are eligible for this new pilot will be able to apply for permanent residency after 12 months and, if they’re approved, will also be allowed to bring their families to Canada.

Industry groups are applauding the new program, which they say is badly needed to address a lack of people available or willing to work on farms and in food-processing plants.

A study by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council released last month found farmers across Canada lost $2.9 billion in sales due to unfilled job vacancies. The study also found the situation has improved, thanks to access to migrant workers and new technologies, but Canadian farms and agri-food plants are still dealing with 16,500 vacancies.

Ryan Koeslag, executive vice president of the Canadian Mushroom Growers Association, said Friday he is pleased to see the federal government willing to adapt its immigration policies to benefit certain agriculture producers.

“For the last decade or more, mushroom growers and other farmers, have fought for immigration access for our sector’s farm workers employed in year-round jobs,” said Ryan Koeslag, executive vice president of the Canadian Mushroom Growers Association.

But Chris Ramsaroop, spokesperson for the group Justice for Migrant Workers, said the access to permanent residency will only apply to those who take part in this narrow pilot program and will continue to be unavailable to the thousands of migrant farm-workers who arrive through the seasonal agriculture workers program.

“We’re dividing agricultural workers based on which industries are more deserving than others,” he said, noting migrant workers who have already been working in Canada in meat production or mushroom plants will have easier access to this program than fruit- or vegetable-farm workers.

Ramsaroop says migrant groups continue to call on the government to offer all temporary foreign workers permanent status upon arrival in Canada.

A maximum of 2,750 principal applicants, plus family members, will be accepted for processing each year during the three-year pilot. Applications are to be accepted beginning in 2020.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press




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