Gaining From Climate Change: Canadian Agriculture’s Net Benefit

I am ready to combine soybeans or at least it feels that way. In many ways, on my farm there are two times of year when you feel a little bit of anxiety akin to the start of the 100 metre dash or the 1500 metre run. The first is preparing to plant in the spring and the second is the fall harvest. Sometimes in Ontario that planning begins in the snow and sometimes harvest in the fall ends in the snow. Needless to say, with the calendar turning to fall, cool weather and harvest conditions are ahead.

One of the indelible clues to the fall harvest approaching for me is the change in temperature. I have a certain garb, which I wear from late May forward that serves me well. It’s usually a T-shirt and a pair of shorts. It’s comfortable during all the hot months, but this time of the year those cool breezes signify a change. I pull out the coveralls in that continual eight-month Canadian attempt to keep warm. October must be just around the corner.

The temperature change is a seasonal change but increasingly I often think about the bigger picture of climate change. I know many of you do not believe in climate change and I used to be the same. However, my experience in Bangladesh over six visits has made me a believer, where I witnessed the seas rising in a country that is mostly just above sea level. Salinity continues to advance from the ocean driving people and wildlife to higher ground. At the same time, I read about the changes in the Canadian Arctic and to me it seems to all add up. It’s difficult to disregard the science. Climate change is having a real impact on where we live.

If you have read my thoughts about this before, you’ll know I’ve never been in favor of a carbon tax. I simply look at that as a convenient way for politicians to raise tax revenue, but I have empathy for the idea of trying to do something. The problem is it’s never politically popular to make changes today, which may affect the climate in 30 years. As a large part no till farmer, I’ve always thought I’ve done my little bit.

That’s because tillage releases carbon into the atmosphere so agriculture is always been looked at as a great big carbon sink. However, our politicians haven’t always looked at it that that way. The very first time I wrote about climate change must’ve been about 25 years ago, when I actually mused about a carbon price of approximately $80/ metric tonne. Here we are 25 years later and nobody in Canada can really agree about the price of carbon.

Interestingly enough, there can be a net benefit from climate change to agriculture in polar countries, specifically Canada and Russia. We often laugh at ourselves as Canadians that when it’s -50 and the wind blowing at 50 kms an hour in January, we could use a little bit of global warming. However, all kidding aside, it’s pretty clear our growing seasons are getting longer and warmer in Canada. I can only assume the same is taking place in Russia. Ditto for the United States where more northern regions like Ohio may soon resemble the climate of Southern Illinois in 30 to 50 years. It will mean a continuum of change with regard to the crops grown and the weather surrounding them.

I was reminded of that this past week, when I read DTN’s Emily Unglesbee’s article “Climate Change Gets Local” where she interviewed Ohio State climate researcher Aaron Wilson. In the piece he talked about “false springs”, where temperatures warm in February, sometimes sabotaging growth of early plants. He also talked about American winters that were warming and the related pests that might be moving north. It was an interesting piece, one that can be entirely related to Canada, where the same things are happening, but at a pace it takes a lifetime to remember.

Simply put, if in southwestern Ontario a warming climate means we will be more like southern Illinois someday, it’s ditto for every other region across Canada and the United States. You might even make an argument that that is another reason why we are producing record crops this year of 14.8 billion bushels of corn and 4.69 billion bushels of soybeans. More heat is helping to produce these crops with the related photosynthesis. Of course, bigger crops can never be attributed singularly to climate change, but there sure is something going on.

According to a recent United Nations report on agricultural commodity markets by the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization) Canada and the United States will see increases in agricultural production over the time to 2050. The report specifically mentioned a 2.5% increase in agricultural production by 2050 and a .9% increase in Russian agriculture by 2050 specifically due to climate change. However, they related negative agricultural impacts in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It’s a mixed bag.

Some of you surely must be still skeptical and I can understand. It’s not straightforward. It is tainted by scientific scandal and politicians, we often disparage. However, I am a believer. I most likely will not be here in 2050 to notice, but I have farmed for a good 45 years and something seems askew. I also know that there are some of you younger people reading this who will be here in 2050. That tells me that maybe you should plan for climate change. Along with future productivity gains, you might have climate gains too. It’s an indirect result of living in a cold place, as the earth gets warmer. Who knew, surely not me, many years ago?