Canada's Wheat Primed for Climate Adaptation

10 January 2018

Changing climate conditions will surely affect Canada’s growing agricultural influence. Since the Canadian Wheat Board relinquished its control of exports in 2012, overseas demand for them has increased. Whereas a warmer Russia produced a staggering 83 million tonnes of wheat in 2017, wheat production in the Canadian prairie provinces was threatened by droughts and high temperatures thought to be brought about by climate change. For the first time, wheat farmers are now looking northward to the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut to provide new acreage for wheat.

Ramped up atmospheric carbon dioxide, increasing temperatures, and changing precipitation patterns are all having huge effects on wheat cultivation. Continued viability of wheat in currently-farmed prairie depends on how the interaction of these environmental factors plays out. Prairie wheat farmers frustrated with production pressures may be forced northward in an attempt to maintain production.

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Background
Carbon Dioxide and Wheat
Canadian Wheat Feels the Heat
Climate Opportunity
Conclusion

Background

While 2017 wasn’t a record year for Canadian wheat production, the harvest was still larger than the country’s canola, soybean, and corn crops. Despite national production reaching 30 million tonnes in 2017, production in the important provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta dropped from a combined 24.44 million tonnes in 2016 to a combined 20.56 million tonnes in 2017. Low precipitation in Saskatchewan worsened this downward production trend in wheat. Total Canadian harvested wheat area increased slightly to 8.43 million hectares, but harvested area dropped by 76,000 hectares in Saskatchewan. Lower-than-average wheat yields of 2.1, 3.2, and 5 tonnes per hectare for durum, spring, and winter wheat, respectively, also reflect a drop from 2016 yields. Durum wheat grown primarily in central and southern Saskatchewan was also hurt by dryness in the summer of 2017.

Carbon Dioxide and Wheat

If current trends continue, atmospheric carbon dioxide will rise from today’s concentration of 405.14 parts per million (ppm) to above 500 ppm within 50 years. Wheat yield could increase as much as 10 percent under those conditions, according to research on spring wheat exposed to free-air carbon dioxide enrichment.

Mirroring the potential benefits Canada may receive from a changing climate, rising temperatures in Russia have encouraged farmers to expand wheat production areas northward, leading to record production. With the International Grains Council forecasting a global 1.4 percent annual production increase in wheat through 2021, the two countries are primed to benefit.

While carbon dioxide might improve crop yield, the increased concentration would reduce overall wheat quality. Wheat protein content could decrease by 7.8 percent with increased carbon dioxide levels. As Canada continues to export wheat abroad, including more than 3.5 million tonnes to Africa, changing atmospheric concentration due to a warming climate can put millions at risk of protein deficiency while potentially downgrading wheat quality in world grain markets.

Canadian Wheat Feels the Heat

Another way climate change affects agriculture is through increased temperature. Heightened temperatures reduce the grain filling period for wheat resulting in small grains. With every 1 degree celsius increase above 18 degrees C (1.8 degrees above 64.4 Fahrenheit), grain weight could drop up to 4 percent. Higher temperatures can also lead to variability in grain size, plant height, grain growth duration, kernel number, and kernel weight.

In 2017, dry conditions in south/central Saskatchewan led to poor Canadian wheat production and quality. Spring wheat crops suffering from drought produced low protein grain unsuitable for bread making. High protein wheat prices jumped to a 4-year high in July 2017 due to the shortage.

Protein percentage is a wheat quality indicator, and the desired protein percentage depends on its end use. A falling number is an indication of sprout damage and is also affected by precipitation and high temperatures.

Higher temperatures shifting Canada’s traditional wheat growing areas to territories like the Yukon calls into question whether there will be a net positive effect on Canadian wheat production and quality. More likely, over the next 50 years a warmer Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba will replace wheat with more heat-tolerant crops, like corn or soy.

Climate Opportunity

Between unpredictable precipitation patterns, flooding, and droughts, any change will severely impact climate-dependent agriculture. However, climate change does present a new opportunity to plow previously frozen land in some northern countries. Canada’s 48 million-hectare Yukon territory is the smallest of the federal territories. Temperatures in the winter routinely drop below -20.0 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) but as temperatures rise it could become a new hub of agricultural productivity. With an acreage larger than Germany, farmers betting on climate to revitalize the Yukon can get a great deal from the government: free land.

Pioneering farmers can now receive as much as 65 hectares in the Yukon at no cost. The government gives away 10 plots of free land per year through this program. Since its 1982 inception, a total of 8,000 hectares in the Yukon has been given away.

Millions of acres are also up for grabs in Canada’s north as ice thaws and tundra melts. Farmers can soon move into these areas to reap the rewards. Arable land in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut is forecast to increase between 26 and 40 percent. At twice the size of France, this area could be a bastion of agrarian growth while wheat production elsewhere may falter. If Canada can build sufficient roads and irrigation systems, it could plant, harvest, and sell more high protein wheat, potentially benefiting food-insecure countries. By 2027, the world will face a 214 trillion calorie deficit per year if the status quo remains unchanged. Canada now has the opportunity to help fill that need by developing key wheat production opportunities in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, the Peace River region between British Columbia and Alberta, and parts of northern Ontario.

Conclusion

Wheat shows the impact climate change will have in Canada and on agriculture globally. By stretching the boundary of what we consider to be areas of arable production, wheat offers a potential silver lining in the cloud of climate woes afflicting agriculture worldwide. Some hope lies with Canadian wheat to help us better adapt to a changing climate. Gro Intelligence geospatial analytics will help industry actors and policy makers to better understand the evolving impact of climate change on wheat in Canada. Their knowledge will enable them to make wiser decisions with far-reaching consequences for the world’s food supply.

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