In Canada, climate change could open new farmland to the plow

by Chris Arsenault | @chrisarsenaul | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Sunday, 24 September 2017 07:50 GMT

Lloyd Giles climbs up onto his combine to relieve his wife Tara who had been driving the afternoon shift during the annual harvest, on a 160-acre field south of High River, Alberta, September 28, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Sturk

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As global warming intensifies droughts and floods, causing crop failures, Canada may see something different: a farming expansion

By Chris Arsenault

TORONTO, Sept 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As global warming intensifies droughts and floods, causing crop failures in many parts of the world, Canada may see something different: a farming expansion.

Rising temperatures could open millions of once frigid acres to the plow, officials, farmers and scientists predict.

This story is part of our special report Rising Heat: A warming planet braces for a sweltering future

"Canada is one of the few countries where climate change may create some opportunities for growing crops in northern latitudes," said Rod Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, a lobby group representing 200,000 farmers.

But determining just how much land in the world's second largest country could become suitable for farming as a result of climate change is not easy, said Ian Jarvis, a senior official with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, a government department.

In the country's three prairie provinces alone - vast swaths of flat land in central Canada covering an area more than twice the size of France - the amount of arable land could rise between 26 and 40 percent by 2040, Jarvis said.

"Most of the improvements are happening in fringe areas of agricultural regions," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Canada is in a better situation than much of the rest of the world."

Dan Lizee, operation manager picks up a handful of wheat off the conveyor belts that transfers wheat from the train cars to the cargo ships in the gallery at the Alliance Grain Terminal in Vancouver, British Columbia October 6, 2011. REUTERS/Ben Nelms

HUNGRY MOUTHS

Canada is the world's largest exporter of canola, flaxseed, and pulses, government figures show, and is one of the top wheat producers.

Farmers hope the country of 35 million will be able to capitalize on the opportunities presented by warmer conditions - including by exporting more food to other regions hard-hit by increasing heat and crop failure.

World agricultural production will need to rise about 50 percent by 2050 to keep pace with population growth, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

As rising heat and more extreme weather cut harvests in some southern regions, hungry mouths across the developing world may turn to northern nations like Canada for help, experts predict.

"We are seen as one of the few countries that can provide food for a growing global population," said Bonnett of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

LAND, WATER AND ROADS

Warming is expected to open new land to farming in Canada's northern prairies, parts of the Yukon Territory near the Arctic, the Peace River region that straddles northern British Columbia and Alberta, and parts of northern Ontario, Bonnett said.

"There is a lot more interest in taking a look at underdeveloped land in northern Ontario and Quebec because of changes in climate," said Bonnett from his farm in northern Ontario where he grows hay and raises cattle.

In one zone of clay soil stretching from Cochrane, Ontario to Abitibi County in neighboring Quebec province, climate change could bring 10 million acres (about 4 million hectares) of new farmland - an area larger than Belgium - into production, Bonnet predicted.

But climate change alone won't make the land economically viable for agriculture, he stressed. Remote areas will need roads, irrigation systems and other infrastructure to become the next farming frontier.

Climate change and improvements in farming technology have happened so quickly that scientific models have not been able provide solid estimates on how much new food could be produced as temperatures rise, said government official Jarvis.

For instance, warming will also shift growing patterns in Canada's existing agricultural regions, allowing some farmers to produce more lucrative crops like corn and soybeans where they once grew barley or hay, scientists say.

Many farmers are now rethinking what they should plant as a result of the shifts, Bonnett said.

He also has installed two solar power units on his farm, taking advantage of sunnier, warmer conditions and the falling cost of renewable electricity production to cut his energy bills.

Tara Giles operates a combine as she harvests wheat on a 160-acre field located south of High River, Alberta, September 28, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Sturk

'DUST BOWL' RISK

One main obstacle stands in the way of Canada expanding its farmland, farmers and officials say: a potential lack of water.

"Canada could benefit more than most from climate change, but it hinges on its ability to manage its water resources," said Hank Venema, a researcher with the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Canada's prairies, home to about 80 percent of its farmland, were devastated by the same long-term "Dust Bowl" drought that hit the United States in the 1930s, leading to farm failures and huge losses of topsoil.

It's a problem that could repeat itself as temperatures warm, leading to faster water losses, Venema warned.

In response to the 1930s drought, Canada's government at that time launched an ambitious effort to plant trees, store more water in the region, and rehabilitate farmland.

Similar public works may be key to capitalizing on today's shifting climate, Venema said.

WILD WEATHER

Alongside fears about water shortages, rising temperatures present other big risks for Canada's farmers, including more frequent crop-damaging storms and other wild weather.

"While there's a lot of uncertainty surrounding the future of Canada's agriculture industry, one thing is clear: we are likely to see more extreme weather events, soil erosion and higher average temperatures," noted Federated Insurance, a Canadian firm that evaluates risks for farmers.

But Canada is unlikely to face problems as severe as those south of the border.

Without adaptation to the new conditions, some U.S. Midwestern and southern counties could see yields decline by more than 10 percent over the next 25 years, according to Risky Business, a research initiative chaired by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.

"I do not think you are going to see places in the deep south where agriculture is going to be obliterated. But it may have to adapt to different crop varieties," said Mark Robson, a professor of plant biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Northern sections of the United States, including along the Atlantic coast, will see longer growing seasons as a result of climate change, added Robson. That should allow them to plant new crops, like their Canadian counterparts.

But insect pests and plant diseases will also move north, and farmers will need new strategies to deal with them, he said.

A worker carries an air filter during wheat harvest on the Stephen and Brian Vandervalk farm near Fort MacLeod, Alberta, September 26, 2011. REUTERS/Todd Korol

'NOT A HAPPY PICTURE'

For Canada, most analysts and farmers believe the potential rewards of climate change will outweigh the risks - at least over the next 30 years.

But if heat keeps on rising and causes greater water shortages and crop failures, Canada could see a decrease in farm productivity by the end of the century, said agriculture official Jarvis.

For now, improvements in farm technology, drought-resistant crops and new harvesting methods mean farmers should be poised to ramp up production as temperatures warm.

"Canada could be playing a bigger role providing the food for the world as heat rises," Jarvis said.

"Other countries are going to be affected (by climate change) much worse than we are," he said. "It's not a really happy picture overall."

(Reporting by Chris Arsenault @chrisarsenaul, Editing by Laurie Goering and Megan Rowling.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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