“I think a lot of your competitors will fall out of the market. They won’t be able to produce under those conditions.”
– David Runnalls
Climate change is real, but it’s not all bad for western Canadian farmers, according to David Runnalls, president and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development headquartered in Winnipeg.
“The good-news story is you (farmers) will do better out of climate change (than most) provided it doesn’t get out of control (with average global temperature increases exceeding 3C),” Runnalls told a Canada Grains Council symposium recently.
“You’ll get a longer growing season, you’ll get more sun… there will be endless water management problems, but I think your prospects will be much better than those for the people in the Great Plains south of the border.
“I think a lot of your competitors (in Europe, Russia, Australia, China and the United States) will fall out of the market. They won’t be able to produce under those conditions.”
A longer growing period will allow farmers to grow different crops and higher levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere will enhance crop growth.
There will be problems though. By 2050, the arid Palliser Triangle could stretch from Brandon to Calgary. “There will be competition for water,” Runnalls said. “We already see it in Alberta with the growth of Calgary and Edmonton and the oilsands.”
Western farmers will face new weed, insect and disease pests and the weather will be less reliable. Wheat yields could be cut 40 per cent because of excessive heat at flowering time, unless breeders develop adaptable varieties, Runnalls said.
“It will be a lot harder to farm, but if these assumptions are right and I think they are, you will be more of a beneficiary than a victim, certainly more than our neighbours to the south,” he said.
Canadian farmers will also face new competition for land from foreign governments anxious to provide food security for their citizens. The Gulf states have already purchased one million hectares of farmland in Sudan. China and South Korea are buying farmland in other countries too.
“Canadian cropland is extremely cheap, particularly cropland on the Prairies, compared to almost any other country,” he said.
Glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau are melting as fast as Canadian glaciers, Runnalls said. By 2050, they will be gone, drying up the main source of water for eight of Asia’s most important rivers where three billion people live, Runnalls said. The Yangtze, Ganges and Indus rivers will become seasonal streams, resulting in lower wheat and rice yields.
Western Canadian farmers will be able to earn revenue from sequestering carbon. But farm groups need to be at the planning table that’s now dominated by government departments of Environment and Finance, Runnalls said.
“You’ll be left out of the debate unless you really make a noise,” he said.
Climate change mitigation policies will become barriers to agricultural trade. As countries introduce policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, governments will be pressured to protect their industries from foreign competitors that don’t face the same regulations.
“This could make the stalemate in agricultural trade look like child’s play once it gets going,” Runnalls said. “I guarantee Canada will get caught in that. There are enough well-paid lawyers in Washington that somebody is going to try a few of these.”
There is no doubt the Earth’s climate is changing, Runnalls said. “The science is solid, it’s real and there are aspects of it that are really frightening,” he said. “This is going to change the way in which you do your business.”
The consensus among climate scientists is if atmospheric CO2 levels reach 450 parts per million, average global temperatures will rise 2C. Runnalls said some scientists predict that will happen at 350 to 400 ppm. Those levels will be exceeded because they’re already at 280 ppm, he said.
“And there’s a very real concern that we may have passed, not the real point of no return, but a point beyond which we really will have irreversible changes in the Earth’s climate,” Runnalls said.
If temperatures rise an average of 2C, 20 to 30 per cent of all species are at risk of extinction.
“If we get to 3-1/2 (degrees Celsius), which is where we are likely to get… we’ll lose 40 to 70 per cent of the living species in the world. So this isn’t child’s play, this is a huge public policy challenge, it’s a huge economic challenge.” [email protected]