Canada can be more food self-sufficient… but there will be a price to pay – part two

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A previous column noted that the continuing drought in California will, in all likelihood, have to see restrictions placed on specific crop production due to an ever decreasing supply of irrigation water. That will affect produce and berries exported to Canada, particularly in the wintertime. A genuine concern would be that the USA will reduce or cut off exports to supply its own citizens first – that’s an understandable approach for any country. One might presume that Mexico and Central America could be alternate sources of produce supplies in the wintertime. That is already happening thanks to a sophisticated North American food logistics and marketing system that has evolved over the past 75 years. But that production could easily be absorbed by the USA if a severe shortage were to develop. Its unlikely Mexico and other countries would favour Canada over the USA in a critical situation. Besides, fully laden food trucks travelling across the USA to Canada in a food crisis situation would not get very far. So how does Canada get some access assurance to produce from California and Mexico even during a shortage crisis? Canada does have a big stick; all it needs is the vision and courage to use it. But first, can Canada become more self-sufficient in food production even in the wintertime. It’s a yes and no predilection.
From a food basics perspective, Canada is not just self-sufficient but an exporter of any surplus. I cite beef, pork, dairy products, poultry and egg products, potatoes, cereals, oilseeds the list goes on. Most can be frozen, canned or stored to be used in the winter if need be. We also have a robust and expanding greenhouse production industry. Thanks to our sunny climate and abundant water and energy supplies, greenhouse production could expand many times over for years to come. Price incentives are what drives that expansion. The point is Canadians could survive if food imports from other countries were cut off. History shows that as recent as 100 years ago, the importation of essential foods was limited. Be that as it may, Canada has many more people to feed today. Luckily the agriculture industry is innovative and entrepreneurial and has shown that it can increase the production of almost any crop given marketing and pricing incentives. We have the technology to grow bananas in greenhouses in the arctic, were it financially feasible. But the latter is what it always boils down to – Canada can become more self-sufficient but is the consumer willing to see their food budget double. North Americans are addicted to cheap food, in abundance and available year-round. The urban-based green left, and many progressives are convinced (deluded) that more food self-sufficiency lies in reviving 18th-century small-scale local organic food production. However, back then, up to 80% of the population was involved in agricultural production. That’s because agriculture was hopelessly inefficient in those nostalgic times, and most folks involved in agriculture could barely feed themselves. What limited surplus there was – was seasonal, limited in selection and easily triple in cost compared to today’s values. I suspect even the most privileged elitist progressive would balk at that food availability situation if it recurred today.
Having said all that, if a true food shortage crisis were to develop because of continuing droughts in the USA that stopped food exports to Canada – with technology and price incentives, this country could supply enough basic food to feed Canadians. But don’t expect to see fresh berries in January or any year-round supply of oranges and bananas – only wealthy progressives green elites would be able to afford to buy those smuggled in foods. Ironically high food costs and shortages are what most folks in the non-western world have to deal with every day.
Luckily, we can count on climate change to give Canada a longer growing season allowing for even more crop diversification. Unfortunately, in the last three years, Alberta has seen cold springs with late frosts; that’s the wrong kind of climate change and would hurt our current level of self-sufficiency. If we want to maintain our access to fresh produce from California in the wintertime, we have one asset that the USA covets and which we could use to guarantee a share of California’s bounty. It’s water, as you might have suspected. Its been discussed before but always falters on ideological posturing, not on avoiding future food shortages. – more next time.
Will Verboven is an ag opinion writer and ag policy advisor.