The Dirty Thirties and Climate Change: A Lesson in History?

By Karen Rooney

Everyone is familiar with the horror stories of the Great Depression. Over 200,000 prairie farms abandoned. The migration of over 300,000 people from rural areas. Wheat crops 32% below average. Corn yields down to 50%. Lives and livelihoods destroyed.

The prairies are known as the “Breadbasket of the World”. The soils of the interior plains of Canada are extremely fertile and have the capacity to grow almost any crop. The prairies, despite shorter growing seasons, also have fairly favourable growing conditions; the majority of the precipitation occurs during the month of June when crops need moisture the most, while clear skies and warm summers allow crops to flourish in a relatively short period of time.

According to the Canada Land Inventory, most of the prairie soil is classified as Class 1, 2 and 3, (or “dependable” soil) meaning that there are very few growing restrictions and that those that do exist can generally be overcome with good agricultural practices and soil management. In Saskatchewan alone there are approximately 269 thousand square kilometres of agricultural land, which is almost 41 percent of the province’s total land. This agricultural land also constitutes approximately 40 percent of Canada’s total agricultural landmass. From an economic standpoint, agriculture and agricultural exports make up a significant portion of Canada’s wealth, estimated at over $ 15 billion dollars annually – provincially, 5%-8% of the prairie provinces GDP is represented by agricultural dollars. In certain regions, agriculture is the dominant economic activity.

As the drought of the Great Depression (as well as the subsequent and more severe drought of 1988) demonstrates, the fertile prairie regions of Canada are extremely sensitive to the effects of drought. Climate change thus has many effects on the quantity and quality of agricultural outputs Canada is able to produce.

Many mathematical representations and models exist to try to predict the effects of climate change on agriculture in Canada. Despite minor variations and projections, all models show an increase in temperature, reductions in soil moisture levels and a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide across the prairie belt. This increase in temperature also leads to an increased moisture loss due to evaporation and evaportranspiration – all variables that make the prairie crops easily susceptible to drought.

While an increase in temperature may have some favourable effects in terms of extending prairie growing seasons and potentially allowing for a larger variety of crops to be grown, it must also be understood that heat can have favourable effects on weeds and pests as well. This, combined with a potential decrease in the effectiveness of the large amounts of pesticides and herbicides employed today in commercial agriculture, means that potential crop yields will be decreased.

All of these variables indicate that average crop yields in the prairie regions will decrease anywhere from 10-30% as a direct result of the consequences of climate change on the prairie ecosystem. The economic impact is millions, if not billions, of dollars lost, thousands of jobs lost and the death of many already struggling rural communities. These changes will also mean that Canada may be forced to import crops which have previously grown abundantly here; crops like barley, oats and other small grains.

To mitigate the impacts of climate change on the agricultural sector, many policy solutions exist. Developing rural education programs to encourage sustainable farm management, reframing agricultural subsidies to encourage soil conservation and taxing water by volume for irrigation purposes are but a few of the potential solutions that exist. Increasing research into the development of drought resistant crops, emphasizing the need for crop diversification (vs. monoculture crops) and the implementation of water conservation laws are a few other examples of how the impacts of climate change can be lessened.

The Great Depression triggered a renewed era in farming technology and practice innovation in order to avoid a similar recurrence. The threat (and early impacts) of climate change on agriculture can potentially stimulate a comparable response, only if the policies and incentives exist to support it.

Comments
One Response to “The Dirty Thirties and Climate Change: A Lesson in History?”
  1. heffernan says:

    And could there be a return of the grasshopper plague (or something similar) that destroyed much of the Prairie crops in the 1930s?

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