Prairie producers need wider range of profitable crops

Our trade troubles with China and India highlight the need not only to diversify markets but to also diversify the prairie portfolio of profitable crops.

Canola is celebrated as the bill payer in Western Canada, the one major crop that usually generates a healthy profit while others are grown only as a necessary part of the rotation.

Wheat area has held up over the past decade but acres of old standbys such as barley, oats and flax have steadily dropped as their economics failed to pencil out.

A lot of that land has shifted into canola, but peas and lentils got some of the acres and new varieties of soybeans and corn also became part of the rotation for some, especially in the eastern Prairies.

Arguably Western Canada has a wider range of rotation options than other major cropping regions but not many of them are sure money makers. Too often, it comes down to canola to pay the bills and that option is currently in doubt because China, which takes about 40 percent of Canada’s seed, is blocking imports for what many believe are political reasons associated with Canada’s arrest of a Huawei executive.

It would be good to reduce such risks by diversifying markets and cropping options.

Not much can be done in the short term, but environmental policies now fairly far advanced could create a much bigger market for biofuel crops.

As reporter Sean Pratt detailed in a story in last week’s paper, the federal government has proposed a new Clean Fuel Standard. Final regulations are not set to be published until 2020 but clean fuel advocates hope the final decision will cause demand for five billion litres of biodiesel and renewable diesel. The latter is processed from sources such as renderings from livestock slaughter, used cooking oil and vegetable oil and is indistinguishable from hydrocarbon diesel, allowing it to be used at 100 percent without any alteration to diesel engines.

Advanced Biofuels Canada estimates 1.5 billion litres of that could be canola-based fuels, requiring 3.17 million tonnes of seed annually.

So that would be a new domestic market for canola, but two other new oilseeds under development for about a decade might soon fully blossom.

Camelina advocates have been getting Canada Food Inspection Agency approvals for the meal to be used in feed. They also have a herbicide tolerant variety in the pipeline. Camelina has also been touted as a source of environmentally friendly bio jet fuel.

And another oilseed, Carinata, owned by Canadian agri-tech company Agrisoma, reached a milestone last summer when it provided the oil for the bio jet fuel to power a United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Zurich, Switzerland. The blend was 30 percent biofuel and 70 percent conventional fuel.

The International Air Transport Association has set targets to cap net aviation carbon dioxide emissions starting in 2020 and to slash them by 50 percent by 2050.

Several major airlines including United, Cathay Pacific and Qantas Airways will have biofuel supply agreements with various suppliers this year or next.

Agrisoma has high hopes to be a major contributor because Carinata oil’s long carbon chain is ideally suited to making jet fuel.

The company plans seed production in several areas in North and South America. Its contracting in Canada was held back while it waited for approvals for the meal to be used in feed, but it has those now.

So biofuel could offer hope for crop diversification but there is also potential in another environmental trend.

We are already well aware of the rising movement to offer plant protein as an alternative to animal protein to lower greenhouse gas production and to offer a potentially more healthy diet. It has sparked hundreds of millions of dollars in investment into pulse processing plants in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Similar environmental thinking is behind a campaign called Future 50 Foods launched by the World Wildlife Fund and Knorr, the soup brand of the global food and consumer product corporation Unilever.

The campaign argues there is danger in the dominance of wheat, corn and rice in world crops. They make up almost 60 percent of the plant-based calories in most diets.

It argues that overproduction of these crops increases disease and insect pest pressure and depletes soil nutrients. As grasslands and forests globally are converted to crop production, many animal and insect species have been pressed to near extinction

So the campaign has identified 50 plant foods that are more nutritious and environmentally sustainable that could be grown and included in tasty meals. In so doing, it would expand agrobiodiversity, make farming more resilient and reduce pressure on wildlife.

Some of the foods, like types of cacti and seaweed, might seem wacky to prairie farmers, but remember this is a global program and seaweed is a dish in Asia and Mexicans eat cacti.

But some of the plants, such as lentils and beans, are familiar to western Canadians. And some of the grains, like buckwheat, kamut, spelt and wild rice, are niche organic crops already produced on the Prairies.

Through its products, promotions and programs, Knorr, working with leading retailers, plans to make these foods more accessible to consumers around the world.

But it will take a lot of work. Farmers will want agronomic packages and know-how to reduce the risk of growing these alternatives.

They will want low-risk production contracts because clearly these crops can’t be marketed like commodities.

Maybe it is all a pipe dream but agriculture would be better off if there were more crop choices. Clearly, the world has no trouble consistently producing an oversupply of wheat, corn and oilseeds.

Diverting some acres into other crops could help reduce the surplus of the staple crops and allow for longer rotations that would help reduce plant disease.

It could work.

After all, who in North America ever heard of quinoa 15 years ago, but now it is all over the place.

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