Water limitations affect Alberta food potential

BANFF, Alta. — Alberta is capable of producing more food but outside pressures could inhibit that ability.

One key pressure point may be water availability, said Brent Patterson, a water consultant from Lethbridge who spoke with land use specialist Brad Stelfox of Calgary at the Alberta Institute of Agrologists annual meeting in Banff on April 22.

“There are significant implications, not only on the land side of things but certainly in our water supply and water management,” said Patterson.

Agriculture will be a potential economic driver in Canada because more food is needed within the next 35 years as the world population continues to grow to more than nine billion.

Good quality water is a challenge in many parts of the world.

About 60 percent of the world’s food is produced on dryland agriculture and that has probably reached its productive  limit.

Irrigation is on 19 percent of the land base but produces 40 percent of the world’s current food supply

“It is predicted up to 80 percent of the food supply for the population is going to  come from irrigation,” he said.

However in many parts of the world irrigation systems are not efficient and there are constant problems with salinity build up, water logging and water shortages.

“We have the technology to solve some of the efficiency issues but many of the countries are facing acute water shortages that depend on irrigation development,” Patterson said.

“Many countries are going to be forced to abandon their policy of food sufficiency because of water shortages,” he said.

He has consulted as a water manager in Ethiopia where large dams and reservoirs to support irrigation and hydro electricity are underway. The electricity is likely to be sold to neighbouring countries for cash while irrigation can hopefully improve food production.

Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Russia and the United States have the ability to substantially increase agriculture production because there should be enough land and water available along with suitable climate, good infrastructure and financial services.

“Converting that opportunity requires some reality challenges for us to consider as we move forward. The one question is do we even want to go down that road,” he said.

“We have a role to play and in my mind there is a moral obligation as part of  the  world community to move in that direction,” he said.

In Alberta there are 20 million hectares of arable land with a well-supported irrigation sector.

However climate change may affect that ability to grow more crops and water supplies may be unpredictable. There could be less water in the rivers that fill Alberta’s reservoirs , which are capable of holding enough water for one or two years.

Alberta Agriculture predicts the province’s temperatures could increase by three to five degrees Celsius and precipitation may increase by 15 percent but much of that moisture could fall in the winter months.

There could be an additional three to nine days of growing season and with  more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and more growing days, productivity should increase. There is already a trend with more crop diversification with more crops like silage and grain corn and soybeans moving further north.

Existing crops like alfalfa and some other forage crops could double production in a warmer climate.

“We are seeing a shift in the natural sub regions. Parkland is going to push north into the central mixed wood and so there will be in all likelihood an increase in the amount of herbaceous vegetation that could be shifted to crops,” said Stelfox.

“It is a system that is highly dynamic,” he said.

The question always returns to water and how it should be shared.

Even during economic downturns Alberta continues to grow to more than four million and there are increasing conversations about who will get the water, said Stelfox.

In 1930 there were 600,000 people and 80 percent of them were in rural communities.  Many of them lived east of Highway Two, which bisects the province.

That has flipped and in 2016, 80 percent of the population is urbanized and more people have moved west. Much of that exodus has been into rural residential communities and in the process agriculture potential is lost as more soil gets paved over and water services are demanded.

Contact barbara.duckworth@producer.com

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