Will climate change affect the crops we choose to grow in Western Canada?

According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, studies on the impact of climate change suggest that most regions of Canada are projected to warm during the next 60 years. Canada, as a high-latitude country, is expected to experience more pronounced warming than the global average with the northern regions and the Prairies affected more than other regions.

This climate change will be reflected in warmer temperatures with longer frost-free seasons. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) scientists predict, on average, an increase of high temperatures by two to three degrees Celsius and low temperatures increasing by three degrees Celsius for the Prairies. The model also predicted an increase in precipitation of 3 to 7 percent.

AAFC goes on to suggest that this warming may provide opportunities for agriculture in certain regions with an expansion of the growing season to go along with milder and shorter winters, increasing productivity and allowing the use of new and potentially more profitable crops, and an increase in arable land.

This all sounds like a great opportunity for the expansion of agriculture across the Prairies and the ability to grow more crops without as much concern about choosing those with short seasons. But with this warmer climate, will there also be increased threats to these crops?

In his article, “Climate Change Impacts on Canadian Agriculture – No Time for Complacency,” Alex Paterson states that optimism has been dampened by studies showing that crops are often more sensitive to temperature extremes than to averages. The effect of temperature on many crops has been found to involve thresholds above which yields will rapidly decline, and that man-made climate change implies more than just a steady warming trend but intense variability.

Climate change could make it more difficult to grow crops, raise animals, and catch fish in the same ways and same places as we have done in the past, states the United States Environmental Protection Agency. “In some areas, warming may benefit the types of crops that are typically planted there; however, if warming exceeds a crop’s optimum temperature, yields can decline. The ranges of weeds and pests are likely to expand northward with increasing temperatures, as well.”

Paterson goes on to say, “Here is what we know we will see more of in the future: moisture stress, droughts, disease outbreaks, weed growth and soil erosion as well as higher average temperatures. With changes of this magnitude in store, this is no time for complacency.”

So, will climate change affect what we grow here in the Prairies? The answer is probably yes. However, the expected climate change will be a very gradual change happening over the next 50-60 years not a dramatic flipping of the switch. And even though farmers make crop plans that extend over a few years, they are most interested in the crop year at hand and trying to mitigate the challenges they are experiencing whether it’s directly linked to climate change or just bad weather.