As the City of Ottawa awaits a provincial greenlight to build two high rises looming over its iconic Central Experimental Farm (CEF), the facility’s crop scientists are voicing concerns that the towers will cast a shadow over sensitive food research crucial to an overheating world.
Depending on who you ask, the development planned for 1081 Carling Avenue, which would replace an existing medical building and parking lots with two high rises containing more than 350 residential units, is either a positive step toward addressing Ottawa’s housing crisis—or evidence of a failure to prioritize the critical research being carried out at the farm.
The shadows cast by the two towers, 27 and 16 storeys tall, will interrupt the work of CEF crop scientists, Pascal Michel, director general of science and technology for the Ontario-Quebec Region of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), told CityNews Ottawa.
“We need to have conditions that mimic normal field conditions across Canada, and that kind of disturbance… is going to really be a barrier for us to interpret the data for farmers across Canada.”
Though some city council members requested a delay, the project was approved by the city’s planning and housing committee on August 16. Speaking in favour of the project, councillor Tim Tierney said swift decisions have to be made to increase density.
“It’s great that we all are farmers suddenly and probably have coveralls out of the blue, but at the same time, we have been preaching as a council that we have a housing crisis,” Tierney told CityNews. “Either we’re going to go ahead and start building, or not.”
But neither Michel, nor any representatives of AAFC or the National Capital Commission, which manages most federal lands and buildings in Ottawa-Gatineau, were properly notified of the August 16 meeting, reported the Kitchissippi Times, the community newspaper where 1081 Carling is located. The oversight raised eyebrows at the time, since neither of the federal bodies was represented at the planning committee meeting
But AAFC had already gone on record in opposition to the development. In an April letter to the city, Michel and another AAFC representative urged the planning committee to consider more deeply the ecological and scientific impacts of such tall buildings so close to the farm.
As CBC News reported, the letter was accompanied by a detailed shadow study, showing that a 28-hectare section of the field southeast of the towers would lose the rough equivalent of 70 days of sunlight annually, a situation out of sync with what would be considered the “norm” in a farmer’s field.
Critical greenhouses built for long-term research projects will also be cast in shadow.
CEF wheat breeder Gavin Humphreys said the shadows would interfere with his research into crop hardiness and survival.
“We would have issues with the development of the crop, and it won’t be representative of what we would have if we were in a farmer’s field where there would be no shadows.”
The fields threatened by shadows are ideal for studying the impacts of drought on crops, CBC says. And highly specific soil conditions mean that simply moving research around and out of harm’s way is not an option, according to Michel. “At this point we believe that [the proposed project] would be very severely affecting the capacity to do any research on those sites.”
Echoing Michel’s concerns, CEF crop breeding assistant and research and development technician Steve Thomas told the Kitchissippi Times that CEF fields have an archival nature. The land has been in steady use for more than 30 years, and in farming, the archive is also a crystal ball.
“As you build up the number of years of research, you can actually use that research and data to predict for the future,” Thomas explained.
This predictive archive is particularly important as crop scientists grapple with the uncertainty of climate change, said CEF greenhouse supervisor Matthew Linsdell.
But even without the escalating threats of global heating to Canadian and global food supplies, the work of the CEF would be critical.
“We’re always releasing new varieties,” said Andrew Burt, AAFC’s lead scientist for Eastern Canada’s spring wheat breeding program. “They may get taken up by growers or not, but we’re on this continual process, continually striving to increase productivity, improve quality, address emerging problems, whether they’re diseases or pests, or addressing new market requirements.”
Part of Burt’s job is to help run a “screening nursery” for a fungal disease called Fusarium head blight (FHB), which can infect spring wheat. FHB is toxic to people and animals, so it’s critical to stop it from entering the market. Burt is growing roughly 3,000 different genetic lines of spring wheat “in a small field” within the larger 427-hectare farm, to test their resistance to FHB. The screening ensures that all varietals released by AAFC are highly resistant to the pathogen.
Following its second approval by planning committee September 20, this time with AAFC and NCC in attendance, Ottawa city councillors voted to approve the new towers on September 27. The project now awaits a likely rubber stamp by the Ontario Land Tribunal.