Why farmers are on the frontline of climate change

Scientists have flagged the Canadian Prairies as possibly becoming a “climate change hotspot.”

The summer of 2021 was one of extreme heat and drought affecting Canada’s farmland.

According to the NASA Earth Observatory, sixty-four per cent of Saskatchewan and 43 per cent of Manitoba faced moderate to exceptional drought conditions this summer. All of the agricultural land in the region.

Droughts are caused when there is no moisture in the soil, and there hasn’t been enough snow and rain. Extremely high temperatures, like the ones recently experienced over the summer of 2021, don’t help. We haven’t had a drought this bad since 1961.

As a result, the 2021 harvest was not good. Canadian canola production, for instance, will hit its lowest level in 14 years. Wheat harvests in Saskatchewan and Manitoba were also poor.

Blame the 2021 pasta shortage on the Canadian Prairies (in part, anyways)

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Between drought conditions in Canada and heavy rains in Europe, there wasn’t much durum wheat, a vital pasta ingredient, to be found anywhere. This meant pasta shelves in grocery stores in the United Kingdom were empty, and consumers in France were spending more on spaghetti. 

Food costs were up in Canada, too, because of low wheat yields, an increase in fuel prices, and supply chain problems. Anecdotally, I’m not much of a pasta eater, but the price of the English muffins I regularly buy has gone up by more than 55 per cent at my local Walmart.

Purchasing meat is also more expensive. Cattle farmers had a tough go over the summer of 2021, too, as dry conditions meant feed was hard to come by. Some people chose to cull their herds, although rain at the end of August that year, in some parts of the prairies, helped because it meant cows could forage grass.

A close up of a mustard field

Related: The Prairies are responsible for France’s mustard shortage

France suffered a Dijon mustard shortage because of the 2021 drought in Saskatchewan.

The province produces 80 per cent of Canada’s mustard.

French manufacturers get 80 per cent of the brown mustard seeds they need to make Dijon mustard from Canada, but the 2021 drought halved our harvest.

Snow can help prevent drought

The moisture provided by the snow should be absorbed into the ground if the soil is dry and won’t freeze. I hate shovelling my driveway as much as the next person, but snow can alleviate summer drought conditions.

The Canadian Prairies may become a climate change hotspot

Environment and Climate Change Canada has reported the country is warming, on average, at about double the global rate, and scientists have flagged the Canadian Prairies as possibly becoming a “climate change hotspot.”

Extreme weather events of amplified severity will likely be the most challenging consequence of climate change in the Prairie Provinces. The impacts of flooding, drought and wildfire in recent years are unprecedented, and climate models suggest an increased risk of these events in the future.

The above is from a report published last year by Natural Resources Canada called Canada in a Changing Climate: Regional Perspectives Report.

The Prairie chapter says Western Canada has had “the strongest warming to date across southern Canada, especially in the winter.”

During the summer of 2021, 34 Saskatchewan communities and 19 in Manitoba shattered temperature records on July 2. Saskatoon recorded the hottest temperature that day at 40 C.

What does climate change look like on the Canadian Prairies?

Going back to the report by Natural Resource Canada, climate change will result in broad-scale ecosystem shifts across the Prairie provinces. Our boreal forests will recede while Parkland and grasslands expand north.

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Precipitation is expected to increase in the winter and spring, causing floods, although groundwater may decrease, according to computer modelling by University of Calgary Researcher Masaki Hayashi.

“Almost none of the future scenarios include sufficient increases in precipitation to compensate for the drying effect of warmer temperatures,” the report says.

The good news is winters may be milder, but droughts are possible during the summer and autumn months.

“The worst-case future scenario for the Prairie provinces is the reoccurrence of consecutive years of severe droughts, such as those that occurred in the 1930s,” according to the report.

This means farmers are on the frontlines of climate change, says the National Union of Farmers.

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