The second coming of the Dirty Thirties

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Sylvain CharleboisClimate change could impact the Canadian Prairies like no other region in the world, putting food security in peril.

Climate change is affecting everything from the fires in the Fort McMurray region to drought in California and elsewhere.

But the climate change stakes are particularly high in the Canadian Prairies, according to a recent University of Manitoba study, which says the Prairies could be the most affected area in the world over the next few decades. A permanent return to the circumstances of the Dirty Thirties is not unfathomable.

Jeopardizing our breadbasket makes climate change the most serious threat to food security in Canada and much of the rest of the world.

Learning that climate change will affect agriculture is not overly surprising, but the expected pace is jaw-dropping.

The report suggests that summers in the Prairies will become hotter and longer. Using Prairie Climate Atlas, a group of scientists predicted disturbing climate changes over the next 50 to 60 years.

For example, the atlas predicts Winnipeg could see 46 days a year of temperatures over 30C – currently, Winnipeg experiences 11 days of 30-degree weather on average a year. For Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon, the number of days of 30-degree weather could be up to seven times current averages. These are desert-like temperatures, similar to what one finds in Texas or even in Mexico.

And yes, fire-stricken Fort McMurray is likely to experience warmer and dryer weather in the future.

These statistics paint a disturbing picture: more heat and less moisture will compromise our agrifood economy. When that happens, food will become less affordable and the ability for some regions to grow food will diminish. Those most vulnerable to climate change will include low-income people and aboriginal communities.

Canada is ranked seventh in world in cereal production and ninth in meat production; first in canola, second in oats, third in pulses and fourth in barley. Overall, as an agricultural exporting country, Canada ranks sixth. The Prairies are home to nearly half of Canada’s farms and a much larger share of its cropland and grassland.

But crop yields could easily drop by more than 50 per cent in the Prairies as a result of climate change.

And that means our contribution to global food systems could be seriously endangered. And certainly, what will affect the Prairies, ultimately, is a matter of concern for all Canadians.

Changes in weather cycles can also mean crop pests and disease are more likely to flourish due to higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, as are pests and pathogens in livestock.

In addition, irrigation issues will be multiplied. They have been on the radar for some time in the Prairies, but climatic perils will ramp up the pressure for water.

Media coverage of droughts in California and elsewhere has been extensive. But we rarely consider how weather patterns can affect the Canadian agrifood sector.

We are starting to see the picture now, and must consider how we can adapt to the new normal of water scarcity and changes in temperature.

Coping with climate change will involve a comprehensive plan in which policymakers and industry stakeholders alike identify and develop preventive measures to offset what is likely to happen.

What goes on in urban areas affects rural Canada, and the University of Manitoba data makes it clear that changes are needed that not only safeguard urban quality of life, but also the future of food systems in general.

Ontario’s climate change plan is a good start, but it will require a multi-sectorial, multi-regional strategy that melds into a national food strategy.

But we are still waiting for the federal government to generate or endorse a game-changing food national strategy. Compared to America’s Farm Bill, Canada’s Growing Forward strategy is mainly an inconsequential attempt to check all the proverbial political boxes.

The Dirty Thirties, a time of depression and drought, were shattering.

Eighty years later, we have data to foresee a recurrence of such devastation, and a clear vision for what can happen to our agrifood systems. We need to take action now in order to make a difference for all Canadians – and the world.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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Dirty Thirties

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By Sylvain Charlebois

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois conducts research in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety. He has written four books and many peer-reviewed and scientific articles - over 500 during his career. His research has been featured in media outlets that include The Economist, New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Globe & Mail, National Post and Toronto Star.

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