Climate Change: Notley's Unexpected Ally in Growth

05/12/2015 01:52 am ET | Updated May 11, 2016

If Alberta premier-designate Rachel Notley is looking to wean her province's economy from its oil addiction, she may find that climate change, ironically enough, turns into an unexpected ally. The Prairies, once hailed as the breadbasket of the world, could find that description gain renewed currency in the years to come. With climate change set to bring about profound changes to global food production, Canada may come to find itself in something of an unforeseen sweet spot.

While the Prairies are a major grain producer, crop production is nevertheless limited by the short growing season that comes with Canada's northern latitude. Turn the thermostat up, however, and the region's agricultural potential begins to look different. And make no mistake--the temperature is going up. Scientists at NASA, for one, identify the Prairies as a climate change hot spot where temperatures will rise by more than the global average.

Indeed, the predicted warming has already started. Average temperatures are up 1.6 degrees since monitoring began on the Prairies in 1895. What's more, the warming trend is accelerating. By mid-century, average temperatures in southern Alberta are expected to rise by 2 degrees compared to readings in the period between 1961 and 1990. On the northern margins of agriculture, in the Peace River region, the temperature increase is expected to increase even more dramatically.

In northern countries like Canada such temperature increases can be a game changer for the agricultural industry. Historically, crop-killing frost is the greatest constraint on production. Compared to southern latitudes, the growing season, defined by the number of frost-free days, can be cut in half. Change the dial on the thermostat, though, and farming in this country starts to look much different.

Weather records indicate that spring is already coming more than two weeks earlier for Alberta these days than it did half a century ago. The predicted temperature changes could add another three to four weeks to growing seasons, which would facilitate better yields, as well as change the types of crops that can be planted.

That prospect hasn't been lost on giant seed producers like Dupont Pioneer and Monsanto. Each has held clinics in recent years to show prairie grain farmers how to grow corn, a higher value crop. Until recently, the idea of planting corn on most of the Prairies has been a non-starter due to the compressed growing season.

Not so any more. Corn production in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba has doubled over the last two years. Seed companies, meanwhile, are predicting exponential gains as the growing season continues to lengthen.

The same warming trends that could encourage western Canadian farmers to plant corn and soybeans could have the opposite effect on the Midwest corn belt. With the US accounting for roughly 40 percent of global corn production, poor crops there have a dramatic impact on corn prices. An unfortunate loss for US farmers would, however, translate into higher corn prices, increasing the size of the win for Canadian corn growers.

We caught a glimpse of what that scenario looks like in 2012 when the worst drought in 70 years devastated Midwest corn production and sent prices soaring by nearly 50 percent. According to the National Climate Assessment--a collaborative effort of 13 different US agencies--such heat waves and ensuing droughts will only become more common in the Midwest.

The predicted incidence of successive days of 35 degree-plus temperatures combined with a rise in the number of consecutive days with minimal rainfall will create tough conditions for agriculture. While farmers will turn more to irrigation, the Ogallala Aquifer, the region's major source of ground water, is already depleting at an alarming rate. In states such as Kansas some 70 percent of the aquifer is expected to be pumped out by 2050.

Alberta, even without the sun shining on the oil industry, may yet be the centre of gravity for the country's economy. Instead of bitumen, though, fields of golden wheat, canola, and perhaps even emerald acres of corn will be responsible for generating much of the province's wealth.