1.3 million farm animals dead due to climate change: What can B.C. do to stop the next catastrophe?

Flooding of Sumas Prairie near Abbotsford, B.C.
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WATCH: How 'sponge cities' can absorb water, prevent flooding – Nov 29, 2021

Six-hundred and thirty thousand chickens, 12,000 pigs and 450 cows. That’s how many animals have died in floodwaters on British Columbia farms over the past three weeks. Another 650,000 were killed during the “heat dome” earlier this year.

That’s 1.3 million farm animals dead in two climate change disasters.

And this figure is only part of the story. Many more animals may still need to be euthanized as farmers return to their barns and as rebuilding efforts get underway across the Fraser Valley.

This ghastly scenario raises a critical and uncomfortable question: in an era of near-constant climate change catastrophe — punctuated by periods of extreme heat, wildfires and cold — should flood-damaged properties be rebuilt on a known floodplain?

“There are some areas that there just may not be enough money to properly protect,” said Rob de Pruis, director of consumer and industry relations at the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

“It just doesn’t make any sense to be building on these existing floodplains. Because you may not be flooded today or tomorrow, but the likelihood of being flooded in these areas is quite a bit.”

Properties inundated by flood waters are seen in Abbotsford, B.C., Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Insurers and animal welfare advocates are urging politicians to consider whether rebuilding farms in an area that could find itself underwater again next year, the year after, or the year after that is a good idea.

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They also want farmers and politicians at all levels of government to ask themselves if Sumas Prairie — the lakebed turned agricultural heartland of the province where the worst flooding occured — is still a safe place to live.

“Imagine if the only thing that was lost in the flooding in the Fraser Valley was a few dozen oat fields,” said Camille Labchuk, a lawyer and executive director of Animal Justice.

“It certainly would be a lot better situation than losing potentially hundreds of thousands of animals.”

Read more: Liquid manure from B.C. floods may have contaminated some Lower Mainland wells

Farmers, meanwhile, say they’re the last people who want to see farm animals injured or killed. It eats into their profits and they have to cope with the emotional toll of cleaning up the carcasses.

But there have been three large-scale natural disasters linked to climate change in B.C. since July: the heat dome, which saw temperatures soar as high as 49.6 degrees celsius, wildfires, and the recent flooding. None of these disasters have provoked significant change to animal welfare laws.

Farmers in Abbotsford B.C. use any water vehicles they can to rescue cattle. Reuters

And while the province has some regulations referring to best practices for farm animal safety, such as rules about how much space a dairy cow should be given and what materials barn floors can be made from, these guidelines are self-policed by farmers or the various industry groups that represent farmers.

Advocates like Labchuk say this has to change and governments must enact stricter animal welfare laws. They also say politicians need to address the links between agriculture and climate change before handing over any more bailouts to farmers.

“Not only are animals at risk, but farming animals is also contributing to the climate crisis and the rise in greenhouse gases that is making these weather events more extreme,” Labchuk said.

B.C. farmland ‘fallacy’

As the Nooksack River burst its banks on Nov. 15, Lisa McCrea was caring for a group of cows at her veterinary clinic on Sumas Prairie.

The barn she was in filled with water so fast that there was no time to escape. She said it took less than an hour for the torrent of frigid water to go from ankle-deep to waist-high.

A few hours later, someone in a kayak arrived to rescue her, McCrea said. But the animals had to stay.

“It was surreal,” she said. “To know that you had to leave cattle behind was tough. Not knowing what we would see the next day, whether or not they would still be alive.”

This isn’t the first time McCrea had to flee rising waters. She grew up in New Brunswick and her family was forced to leave their home because of flooding.

It’s also not the first time Sumas Prairie has been underwater. There have been dozens of floods over the past few decades, including major flooding in 1990 and a catastrophic flood in 1948.

That’s because Sumas Prairie used to be a lake.

The Semá:th Lake, or Sumas Lake, was drained by the B.C. provincial government in the 1920s to make room for colonial farmland, displacing Sumas First Nation and its members. Courtesy: The Reach Museum

The so-called “prairie” was created in 1924 when engineers drained Sumas Lake using an intricate network of dikes, pumps and canals. Farmers have been able to grow crops and raise animals on the lakebed ever since.

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But this fragile system requires constant upkeep. And the impacts of climate change are making this difficult job even harder.

“There’s a fallacy, an error in logic, that’s being touted with almost every single news report,” said B.C. historian Chad Reimer, who’s researched and written about the area. ”That is, that the central Fraser Valley is a rich agricultural land.”

Read more: Sumas First Nation chief reflects on ‘disaster’ B.C. flooding where lake used to be

Reimer said farmers originally wanted to grow wheat in the area, but quickly learned the soil was better suited to crops like grass, corn and berries. The proximity to pastures led to rapid growth of the Fraser Valley’s livestock sector.

But the historical rationale for raising livestock in the valley no longer makes sense, Reimer said. Many farmed animals nowadays, such as dairy cows and chickens, spend nearly all of their lives indoors and eat food grown elsewhere.

He also said the reason flood damage is so severe this time compared to other years is because politicians have allowed farms to proliferate in an area fraught with known flood risks and few means of controlling them.

“The water wants to flood,” Reimer said. “It’s falling down from the mountains, it’s carried by gravity, it hits what used to be a lakebed, as well as a floodplain. It wants to flood and it will find a way.”

Emergency preparedness on farms

Protecting farm animals from harm in B.C. is mostly up to farmers and industry groups.

The National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) creates codes of practice for each type of farming. These codes are developed with input from farmers, meat processors, consumer and retail groups, plus animal welfare organizations, such as Humane Canada.

The codes include recommendations and requirements for things like animal breeding, health and safety, and what must be done in the event of a power outage.

Adhering to these codes is mandatory for livestock farmers to be licensed in B.C. and compliance is monitored by various industry groups and associations, including provincial dairy and poultry marketing boards.

But the codes themselves offer few details about what farmers must do to protect animals during an emergency.

The current dairy code includes no emergency-care requirements whatsoever. Farmers are encouraged to create evacuation plans, including ways to transport and house animals during a disaster, but these provisions are merely recommendations.

Dairy cows in Canada
Dairy cows are shown in a barn on a farm in Eastern Ontario on Wednesday, April 19, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The poultry code, which covers chickens, egg-laying hens and turkeys, says farmers must have a contingency plan, a backup power source, and alarms to signal when critical machinery fails, but the code says nothing about evacuating birds during floods or fire.

The pig code contains even fewer details.

“There’s not a lot of protection for animals in general,” said Vicki Fecteau, director of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.

Read more: Thousands of pigs, cows, chickens and likely bees died in Fraser Valley

Fecteau believes governments are reluctant to burden farmers with additional costs, even if that means farm animals get less protection.

She also said the NFACC codes and provincial legislation are insufficient to prevent harm, either during day-to-day operations or during an emergency.

Click to play video: 'Flood recovery efforts continue in Fraser Valley'
Flood recovery efforts continue in Fraser Valley

But not everyone agrees with this perspective.

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Ray Nickel, a chicken farmer and spokesperson for the B.C. Poultry Association, said there’s plenty of regulation and oversight built into the farming industry.

He also said it’s in every farmer’s best interest to care for animals, keep them healthy, and save them from disaster.

“We do have a very strong emergency response team here in B.C.,” Nickel said. “That’s been built up since 2004, when we had the catastrophic avian influenza ordeal.”

Rows of new enriched colony housing cages inside a hen barn on an egg farm in West Lincoln, Ont., on March 7, 2016.
Rows of new enriched colony housing cages inside a hen barn on an egg farm in West Lincoln, Ont., on March 7, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power

Nickel said farmers have also responded to the new realities of climate change over the past decade, especially extreme heat.

He said losses during the heat dome would have been much worse if farmers hadn’t upgraded cooling systems after similar heatwaves in the past.

And when it comes to flooding, Nickel said most farms have mitigation plans in place, which include plans to move animals to higher elevation and having backup generators in case the power goes out.

But it’s impossible to plan for every eventuality, he said, especially large-scale infrastructure failures like those seen during the most recent floods.

“Most producers would have weathered through the rain event, but you can’t plan for a dike necessarily breaking,” Nickel said. “And if you did, which you might have to do in the future, there still has to be a warning system in place.”

Monitoring and compliance

Officials from Environment and Climate Change Canada say an early warning system for the kind of “atmospheric rivers” that hit B.C. over the past three weeks could be years away.

Meanwhile, farmers and animal welfare advocates still need to prepare for the next disaster, which could strike at any moment.

Labchuk, the executive director of Animal Justice, said farms should be smaller.

An average chicken farm in B.C. has about 50,000 birds. Pig farms have about 5,000 hogs. And dairy farms can have several hundred cows.

“There’s no realistic way to evacuate tens of thousands of chickens from a flooded barn,” Labchuk said. “Farm sizes should be limited to the number of animals that can be evacuated, and emergency rescue plans should be a legal requirement.”

A police officer stands beside a protester at Excelsior Hog Farm in Abbotsford, B.C., on Sunday April 28, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Labchuk also said there are problems with how the NFACC codes are incorporated into law.

In Prince Edward Island, animal welfare regulations say “[e]very owner of a commercial animal shall comply with the codes of practice…” This doesn’t mean farmers will face penalties if their animals die in a climate disaster, but there is a legal requirement to do what’s outlined in the codes.

Farmers in B.C. have no such legal requirement. The codes are referenced in provincial regulations, but it’s not legally mandatory to follow them.

Click to play video: 'B.C. floods: Abbotsford evacuees return to major damage, face long road to recovery'
B.C. floods: Abbotsford evacuees return to major damage, face long road to recovery

The province’s agriculture ministry says on its website that including the codes in law “protects farmers and ranchers” from allegations of wrongdoing when reasonable and generally accepted farming practices are “misperceived or challenged.” This could include branding cattle, which causes “acute pain” to the animals, keeping egg-laying hens locked inside small cages, or depriving animals of outdoor exercise.

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B.C.’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act also says farmers “must not be found guilty of an offence” if their actions are carried out “in accordance with the prescribed standards of care” for the kind of farming they engage in.

That means farmers whose cows, pigs or chickens died of drowning or hypothermia during recent flooding will likely never face charges — even if their emergency plans were insufficient or nonexistent. Farmers might also avoid conviction if their animals die of heat exposure — even if they don’t have the most up-to-date cooling systems.

Firefighters battle a barn fire in Quinte West, Ont. that killed 50 cows on Aug. 28, 2020. Quinte West Fire Department

B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.

“There are no legal requirements for evacuation plans for farm animals,” said B.C. SPCA farm animal welfare manager Melissa Speirs.

Speirs said the challenges of evacuating farm animals during a disaster are immense. This includes finding trucks suitable for transporting live animals, having large supplies of food and water, plus dealing with the immediate risks posed by the disaster itself.

In the case of flooding or wildfires, there are also risks to human life that need to be considered. Sometimes disasters move fast, such as the wildfires in Lytton, B.C., or the mudslides caused by the recent floods. In these situations, human well-being must be the top priority.

But that doesn’t mean farmers shouldn’t be prepared, Speirs said, nor does it mean the government should take a back seat when it comes to prevention.

“All of our farmers indicate that the codes of practice are very important and that they are following them,” she said. “We’re just looking for additional assurances that that’s the case.”

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces use sandbags to protect a critical pump station in Abbotsford, B.C. after the city was flooded by torrential downpour between Nov. 14 and 15, 2021. Twitter/City of Abbotsford

This view isn’t shared by everyone who takes care of animals.

McCrea, the veterinarian from Sumas Prairie, said she believes the best oversight for farm animals comes from within the industry itself.

Whether it’s farmer-led or veterinarian-led, she said the expertise and knowledge needed to care for farm animals only comes with experience.

This was evident the morning after the floods first hit, McCrea said, when she and her colleagues returned to the barn to wrangle the cows to safety.

“We didn’t experience any losses,” she said. “We’re working together and just trying to keep up, keep everybody on top of things … and trying to do more of a proactive approach to helping the animals through this.”