Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Food and Drink

A big fat grain for a big fat country



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Another big change wheat farmers around the world are contending with is climate change. Although this year's harvest of 17.4 million tonnes is a very big pile of wheat and, as noted earlier, a record-breaker, it's still about 300,000 tonnes short of the Statistics Canada estimate from two years ago, or about 15 per cent below 2005-09 averages.

The culprit? It's the hugely disappointing weather this spring and summer. Overall, 2011 was a lousy grain-producing, a lousy everything-producing year for anyone growing anything west of Ontario. Just ask our Pemberton farmers. Mostly it was too cold and wet for seeds to germinate and get growing, then it was terribly hot and dry in many areas, which helped some farms but dried up others.

Officials in North America lay all this at the feet of the La NiƱa effect. Scientists and meteorologists aren't allowed to -yet - but I will go one step further and venture these effects are being exaggerated by climate change. (A report recently released by the European Commission's Joint Research Center states that global carbon dioxide emissions generated by humans rose 5.8 per cent in 2010 to the highest level ever recorded.)

Changing climatic regimes are impacting the production of wheat - and virtually all other crops - around the world. For instance, changes in precipitation levels and temperatures and their timing are causing one form of rust that destroys wheat crops to move out of Africa and into the Arabian peninsula, where it can spread to Europe and Russia. Bear in mind that it takes an average of 12 years for horticulturalists to develop a new variety of wheat that could be resistant to this spreading wheat rust, or any other new pest or pestilence, something that has scientists worried about our traditional "bread basket" for humanity.

But even with the lousy weather this year, Canada will still harvest enough this fall to retain our No. 6 world ranking in wheat production and, for one last year, our No. 1 ranking in sales, in size, from a single entity, namely our former mighty and soon-to-be-dismantled Canadian Wheat Board.

So why should you or I, good Canadians that we are, care about all this? Here's a quick bite on how singular and important wheat is, despite the way we non-farm dwellers take it, and most of our food sources, for granted.

Although it's an ancient grain (wheat, barley and spelt were found in prehistoric delta settlements dating to 4000 BCE along the Nile), wheat was first grown in Canada in the early 1600s near what was then called Port Royal, now Annapolis Royal, in Nova Scotia.