Farmers have little to fear from climate

Prairie farmers need not worry that climate change will turn their fields into dust bowls. That doesn’t mean, however, that they won’t see changes that could have a direct impact on the kinds of crops that are planted.

Prairie farmers need not worry that climate change will turn their fields into dust bowls.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they won’t see changes that could have a direct impact on the kinds of crops that are planted.

At Ottawa’s International Development Research Centre, Susan Robertson wants to remove some of the guess work. Taking thousands of weather observations and crop-related data gathered over the last 50 years, she is trying to predict how climate change will affect agricultural land use in the Prairies.

Robertson, a senior program officer for the centre, said climate change is not expected to have a dramatic impact on Canadian farmers.

Current models project slight changes or none at all.

“Out of the global win-lose for climate change Canada is not likely to be a loser — according to current analysis.”

The researcher gave a sense of the complexity of the project and provided some early observations at the Alberta Agricultural Economics Association in Red Deer on Friday.

“I hope to be able to show the change in the spatial ranges for the different crops under climate change,” she said in an interview following her presentation.

For instance, crops mostly grown in the south now could flourish farther north in decades.

The future is expected to bring an increasing demand for food to meet a growing population.

Demand for the kinds of agricultural products that can be turned into biofuels, such as canola, are also expected to go up.

“We don’t know what the demand for agricultural output is going to be,” she said. “But if we don’t know what our agricultural output capacity is it’s really hard to plan for the future.

“This kind of modelling will allow us to have some glimpse into what our potential will be.”

When the work is completed, likely in next few months, it may provide a view of the future that departs from the present.

“We’re cruising along on the basis that we’re a great wheat-producing region, for example. But maybe that’s not going to be true.

“Then if it’s not true then we have to make some major planning changes on how we manage the land base.”

Different sorts of agricultural support programs may be required or changes made to the crops grown to provide reasonable farm incomes.

It is too early to draw conclusions or make predictions on the data gathered. However, Robertson is confident the project will provide a useful map for the future once complete.

“That is the goal,” she said, adding they expect to be able to pick winners among existing crop varieties.

That is not to say all the answers will be provided. For instance, the modelling is based on today’s main crops and doesn’t consider crops like soybeans, corn or peas that may be introduced if growing conditions change.

Robertson is examining four scenarios ranging from a worst-case prediction to a scenario in which no climate change occurs. Two other models make predictions based on a world where some solutions are found to control greenhouse gases and where maximum effort is made using the best-possible technology.

The centre funds research and development for researchers in developing countries to help solve problems they are experiencing in their nations.

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com