A farmer tends to peppers in a plastic polytunnel, which keeps in heat and protects plants from high winds. Photo credit: Bernard Soubry.

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For farmers, working together isn’t just neighbourly: it’s a path to climate adaptation.

Flooded roads, dried-out fields, lost crops: climate change causes huge problems for the ways in which we grow, move, and sell food. Adapting to the shocks that climate change brings can be difficult, because governments are big institutions that are often slow to react to fast changes. What’s more, they often misunderstand what farmers and food retailers actually need. So how do we create good policies that are flexible enough to react to all the uncertainty that climate change brings to the table?

We interviewed farmers, food retailers, and distributors across the Eastern Canadian Maritime region to find out how they already adapt to shocks in the food system. We found that not only does working together (or collective action) help save on costs and labour: it also helps people get better at adapting to the kinds of shocks climate change will bring. 

For example, by forming a marketing co-op to sell vegetables together instead of competing, farmers in New Brunswick built a network to call on in times of need. They bought a building to house their farmers’ market, keeping themselves financially secure. And they’re able to speak to the government with one united voice, which helps them change policy by making their needs known. All of these strategies are good for the business of growing good food, but they’re also the building blocks of a good strategy for adapting to climate change.

We can think about collective action like desire lines, those shortcuts that people take through the grass to get from point A to point B. Good government doesn’t tell people to stick to the sidewalk: it sees the ruts and grooves of where people actually go and paves paths that reflect people’s real-world needs.

Our paper recommends that governments pay more attention to the ways people work together and support the work that already exists. For the food system to adapt to climate change, we don’t always need big, new, top-down policy: sometimes, the best solutions can come from the people on the ground. 

Collective action (at the bottom) translates into impacts at the farm level and at the food system level to build adaptive capacity to climate change (top).