Interesting times for growing crops in West

For those long in the tooth who have observed the development of crop production in Alberta, they can’t help but notice the ever-increasing

For those long in the tooth who have observed the development of crop production in Alberta, they can’t help but notice the ever-increasing acres of canola.

Forty years ago, canola production was confined mostly to central and northern Alberta. Back in the early 1970s, it was still called rapeseed. The name was changed to canola around 1978, but the stubborn Europeans still use the word rapeseed.

The first big change for the crop was when the euricic acid content was all but eliminated by plant breeders at the University of Manitoba. That, along with other genomic and agronomic advancements, made the crop more usable and marketable for human and animal consumption. Still, the production range remained limited to central areas and the Peace River district — which saw an explosion of production. It wasn’t until private plant breeders got involved with developing new varieties that the production range of canola began to significantly expand.

Today, we’re seeing canola growing well into southern Alberta and into the fringe areas where droughts are more common. Much of that expansion is due to the development of hybrid varieties that can withstand more harsh conditions.

This was due to the second big change to affect the crop — the development of genetically modified varieties by global seed companies like Monsanto. That involvement has seen the crop take off in production thanks to genetic improvements — but as welcome as that has been to grower profitability, there will be long-term implications that will not help Canadian growers.

A recent trip through the northern B.C. Okanagan, Washington and Idaho provided an eye-opener as to how far canola production has spread. All those areas had canola in bloom. Production will be limited in the Okanagan area because of the limited land base, but it will increasingly displace less profitable grain production.

It’s in Washington and Idaho that the future of more canola production becomes more threatening. Those familiar with U.S. crop production would be aware of the millions of acres of wheat being grown on the rolling hills in many areas of both of those states.

Interspersed here and there were modest acres of canola. Clearly, American growers are experimenting with growing canola. All it’s going to take is more varieties suitable to those areas and canola production could skyrocket. Considering the more favourable climate and their massive economies of scale, growers in those areas could be growing canola cheaper than in western Canada. Heck, that’s not even mentioning increased canola growing in Montana, the Dakotas and even Minnesota. Once you start adding up the numbers, it’s beginning to look ominous for future canola gluts.

It gets worse when one begins to consider the future of winter canola production. At present, that crop works a lot better in the U.S. and Ontario than in western Canada.

Plant breeders and seed companies are expending a lot of money and time in improving the genetics and agronomy of that type of canola. Considering that much of the U.S. wheat crop is of the winter variety, switching to growing winter canola is not that farfetched an idea. One ponders how far along the big global seed companies are in developing GM winter canola and even more improved GM spring varieties that could be grown in similar areas around the world and one begins to fear for the future of canola production in western Canada.

What if they started to grow GM canola varieties in the Ukraine and China? Expansion in Australia continues, never mind future growing possibilities in South America.

There’s some hope on the horizon for growers in western Canada, and that’s the real possibility of expanding corn production into new areas. Companies like Monsanto are ramping up development of better varieties suited to this area. As long as it is more profitable, particularly compared to canola and wheat, corn production may thwart the ever-expanding range of canola growing. The canola-versus-corn border seems to be in North Dakota and southern Manitoba at the moment, but that could well be pushed further north into southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

If global warming becomes real and consistent, more corn production up in our area seems inevitable. One thing is for certain — growing crops in western Canada is sure to become a lot more interesting in the near future.

Whether it will be canola or other crops is the question.

— Ahead of the Heard

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