For much of the latter half of the 20th century, Canada was often referred to as the ‘breadbasket of the world’, due to the high number of wheat production acres and export volumes. However, during this time many farmers relied on short crop rotations that included summerfallow, resulting in greater environmental impacts than present crop production practices. Summerfallow deprived a fields’ future crops of moisture and the frequent tillage passes made soils more susceptible to water and wind erosion. In some areas, where livestock was more common, three-year rotations were often used, where wheat would be grown the first year, followed by another cereal crop to be used for livestock feed (oats and barley), with the third year being summerfallow. At this time, wheat was the king crop to produce due to its high profits and global demand for the premium quality of Canadian wheat, however, this no longer seems to be the case, why?
Export and production changes
While Canada still produces and exports significant volumes of wheat, given changes in land use and crop rotations over the past 30 years, there have been shifts away from wheat. Figure 1 provides the estimated 2021 Canadian production and export position for common commodities. No data is available for pulses and lentils, both of which have rapid production increases, with correspondingly high export percentages.
Increased farmer choice
In the past 30 years, there has been a shift away from wheat as Canada has become the leading raw canola seed exporter and the global leader concerning canola meal and canola oil exports. The production of canola, corn, and soy has dramatically increased over the past three decades thanks in part to improved crop breeding programs and private sector investments. New varieties of these three commodities are predominantly commercialized by private technology development firms, allowing the public sector to devote more resources to other commodities. This also provides choice for farmers, with those that opt to pay higher seed costs when purchasing private sector developed seed, while those that prefer to keep their seed costs lower can purchase their seed needs from public sector developed varieties.
Canada’s increased crop diversity is predominantly due to changes in land management habits, with land being transitioned out of summerfallow into continuous crop production, increasing moisture conservation and reducing soil erosion. Through a collaboration of seed, chemical, and equipment technologies, farmers have been able to maintain excellent weed control without needing to till fields.
What lies ahead?
Canada has made significant investments in wheat development programs, ensuring that Canada will remain a key wheat producing and exporting nation. Canola investments also remain strong, meaning that Canada is unlikely to relinquish its number one export position any time soon. So far, Canada has experienced very limited success in encouraging the private sector to invest in the development of cereals, pulses, lentils and oilseeds other than canola. In some commodities, there are only 2-3 breeding programs, which limits the number of new varieties released and farmer choice. Greater private sector investments would increase the number of new varieties, increasing choice. As climates change, Canada needs to ensure it has a world-leading variety of development programs, which will continue to allow Canada to export high commodity volumes around the world.
Increased sustainability is going to be a driver of future production and trade, as Canada has little land left to claim for crop production. This means our production needs to focus now even more on improving yields and profits while taking care of the land sustainably. Canadian farmers have already made great strides in increased sustainable production practices, but additional improvements will be required. One example would be the development of better nitrogen-fixating pulse varieties that would reduce fertilizer requirements for a subsequent crop. Variations of cereal-pulse-oilseed rotations have greatly contributed to increased sustainability, highlighting the importance of ensuring that strong public and private breeding programs are available for all three commodity types. Achieving this will allow Canada to continue to be a leading producer and exporter of cereals, pulses, and oilseeds into the future. While it’s not possible to know what lies ahead for Canadian crops or their place in the world’s demand for food, we know that demand will remain strong for sustainably produced commodities. Canada’s excellence in sustainably produced food commodities is likely to provide benefits for the coming years.