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The second coming of the Dirty Thirties? Climate change will bring drought and depression

Sylvain Charlebois, is dean of the Faculty of Management and professor in food distribution and policy, Faculty of Agriculture, at Dalhousie University.

Some experts believe the wildfires at Fort McMurray suggest we should become accustomed to major disasters that may be linked to the long-term effects of climate change. But the stakes are different in the Prairies. According to a recent study from the University of Winnipeg, the Prairie region represents a unique case around the world.

The study reports that the Canadian Prairies could be the most affected area in the world over the next few decades. Jeopardizing our breadbasket makes climate change the most serious threat to our food security.

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Learning that climate change will affect agriculture is not overly surprising, but the expected pace is jaw-dropping. The Manitoba-based report suggests that summers in the Prairies will become hotter and longer. Using a Prairie Climate Atlas, a group of scientists predicted that over the next 50 to 60 years the climate picture is not pretty. For example, the atlas predicts Winnipeg could see 46 days a year of temperatures over 30 C, a frequency which is four times what the city experiences now. Currently, Winnipeg experiences 11 days of 30 C weather on average a year. For Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon the number could grow 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 are staggering statistics. More heat and less moisture will compromise our ability to grow our agrifood economy. But also, other than farmers, reports on climate change suggest that the most vulnerable to climate change include people and families with less means and indigenous communities. Food will likely become less affordable and the ability for some remote regions to grow food will be negatively affected.

Globally, Canada is currently ranked seventh in world in cereal production and ninth in world in meat production. Canada is first in rapeseed, second in oats, third in pulses, fourth in barley and as an agricultural exporting country, Canada is sixth in the world.

The Prairies are home to nearly half of Canada's farms and much larger shares of its cropland and grassland bases. Reports claim that crop yields could easily drop by more than 50 per cent in the Prairies due to climate change. Consequently our contribution to global food systems could seriously be endangered. Changes in weather cycles can also influence crop pests and disease as they could increase due to higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Increased prevalence of pests and pathogens in livestock and crops is also a definite possibility in the future. With many more days of 30 C temperature, the severity and impact can potentially be significant as well.

Water irrigation issues have been on the radar for quite some time in the Prairies, but climatic perils may be too much for what is currently being done. This problem is not only for the Prairies to deal with, but is a matter for all Canadians.

Media coverage of droughts in California and other regions have been extensive. But we rarely consider how weather patterns can affect the agrifood sector in Canada. Adaptation will be part of the new normal in addressing water scarcity and changes in temperature. Coping with the impacts of climate change will involve a comprehensive plan which allows for policymakers and industry stakeholders alike to identify and develop prevention measures to offset what is likely to happen. Most importantly, what goes on in urban areas affects rural Canada, and this most recent survey calls for changes that not only safeguard the quality of life in cities, but also the future of food systems in general. Ontario's climate change plan is a good start, but it will require a multisectorial, multiregional strategy which needs to be captured into our national food strategy.

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Ottawa still has yet to generate or endorse an influential national food strategy for Canadians. Compared to America's Farm Bill, Canada's Growing Forward is mainly an inconsequential attempt to check all the proverbial political boxes. The Depression and drought of the Dirty Thirties were shattering. This time we have data to prevent this from happening and a clear vision for our agrifood systems that can make a difference for all Canadians and the world.

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