As the climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, experts warn if dramatic steps to mitigate global warming are not taken, the effects in Canada’s Prairie region will be devastating to the country’s agriculture sector.
According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country is warming, on average, about double the global rate.
Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. recently found 2020 was earth’s second-hottest year on record, with the average land and ocean surface temperature across the globe at 0.98 of a degree C above the 20th-century average.
However, the agency found the northern hemisphere saw its hottest year on record, at 1.28 degrees C above the average.
“(In Canada) we are looking at about 6.4C degrees of warming this century, which isn’t much less than one degree per decade, which is just a terrifying rate of warming,” Darrin Qualman, the director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmer’s Union said.
Qualman said there is “massive change coming” to Canada’s Prairies, which will be “incredibly destructive.”
“It’s not going too far to say that if we made that happen, parts of the Prairies wouldn’t be farmable anymore,” he said.
According to the federal government, in 2018 Canada’s agriculture and agri-food system generated $143 billion, accounting for 7.4 per cent of the country’s GDP.
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The sector employed 2.3 million people in 2018. The majority of the 64.2 million hectares of farmland in Canada is concentrated in the Prairies and in southern Ontario.
The effects of climate change are already being felt on the ground in the Prairies, Qualman said, adding that the NFU has already heard from farmers complaining of “challenging weather.”
“People are sharing pictures of flattened crops and buildings, et cetera, that have been damaged,” he said. “And we’re still at the beginning of this.”
Extreme weather events, droughts
A study released earlier this year by Natural Resources Canada (NRC) titled Canada in a Changing Climate: Regional Perspectives Report, found the Prairies and Western Canada have had “the strongest warming to date across Southern Canada, especially in winter.”
“Extreme weather events of amplified severity will likely be the most challenging consequences of climate change in the Prairie provinces,” the report said. “The impacts of flooding, drought, and wildfire in recent years are unprecedented, and climate models suggest increased risk of these events in the future.”
Additional chapters of the report are scheduled to be released on a rolling basis throughout 2021. Each will outline how climate change is projected to affect the different regions of Canada.
So far, the majority of the warming seen in the Prairies has been in the winter months, Danny Blair, a professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Winnipeg who studies climate change told Global News.
“But in all seasons – including the summer – there’s a lot of warming still to come,” he said.
“And so drought should be really high on people’s list about the things to worry about in prairie agriculture in the future,” he said.
Canada’s food basket
While warmer temperatures may mean a longer growing season in the short-term, Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at Dalhousie University and scientific director at Agri-Food Analytics Lab, said in the long-run climate change will be “quite destructive” to the agriculture sector.
“The problem is that we often see very, very unpredictable weather patterns that can actually be damaging for crops,” he explained.
According to the NRC report, in order to receive the “net benefits” from a longer growing season, farmers will have to adapt to “limit the impacts of climate extremes including water availability, and the increased risk of pests, vector-borne diseases and invasive species.”
Asked if Canadians need to be worried about potential food shortages due to climate change, Charlebois said: “I think we do.”
“I actually would say that the number one threat to agriculture anywhere in the world is climate change for sure because it makes things so unpredictable,” he said. “I would say that climate change is to agriculture as the pandemic was to retail.”
“It’s a tsunami of unpredictable scenarios.”
Charlebois said Canadians likely won’t go hungry in the near future, but warming temperatures could impact which types of products are readily available at grocery stores in the next several years.
However, Qualman said the availability of certain groceries is the least of our concerns.
“The kind of warming we’re on track for goes way beyond what some farmer grows or doesn’t grow and what the price of groceries might be – it changes the world,” he said.
Mitigation and adaptation
According to Blair as temperatures warm and the growing season extends, water management in the Prairies will become increasingly important.
“The projection is for precipitation to go up overall, but down a little bit in the summertime,” he explained. “So just at the time when you need the soil to be replenished with moisture to get those crops growing, the probability is that precipitation is going to go down.”
He said this means the agriculture sector is going to have to prepare for times when water is in short supply.
As the climate continues to warm, Blair said adaptation is “essential.”
“We need to think about these things and invest in these kinds of adaptations now,” he said. “We need to breed crops or be prepared to switch to crops that are more heat-resistant or more drought-tolerant, we need to switch our soil moisture management practices for the purpose of conserving water.”
He said investments need to be made in irrigation, and we must ensure Canadian farms are economically stable.
However, Qualman said adaptation “just doesn’t make sense” unless we can find a way to “dramatically slash” the amount of warming Canada is on track to see this century.
Qualman said in order for adaptation to work, you “have to be aiming at adapting to something reasonable.”
“You can probably adapt to moderate climate change,” he said. “But we’re not facing moderate climate change. We’re facing extreme and devastating climate change.
So while it’s prudent to made adaptation plans, it’s much more critical to really reduce emissions fast.”
Qualman said if Canada were to slash its projections in half, “it would start to seem more likely that you could begin to adapt to that.”
He said if there are “ambitious emission reduction plans” both nationally and internationally, then adaptation is “prudent and possible.”
“So, it’s not that adaptation is the wrong thing to do — it’s just that adaptation in the current context, won’t work,” he said.