Canada urges farmers to grow more grain as global food crisis deepens
The Canadian government is urging farmers to increase production of wheat, barley and other grains this year in response to global food insecurity problems caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
But farmers now in the midst of planning or planting their crops are warning that weather conditions, the high price of fertilizers, seed availability and labour shortages are all playing havoc with everyone’s best intentions.
Keith Currie, a senior executive with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said the prevailing mood among Canadian farmers is “hope and worry.”
Farmers are “eternal optimists,” he said. “We’re going to try and increase supply because we know that part of our job is not only growing food for Canadians, but it’s to feed the world.”
Yet Currie, who farms corn, soybeans and wheat near Collingwood, Ont., says the higher costs of the “inputs” that farmers use “are going to have a huge impact on our bottom line.”
Ukraine and Russia export a quarter of the world’s wheat. Russia is also one of the world’s largest producers of nitrogen fertilizer. However, three months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the conflict has restricted Ukrainian food production and exports, and led the West to impose crippling sanctions on Russian exports, particularly oil and gas.
It’s led to higher energy prices on world markets and higher prices for commodities like wheat and barley.
In one respect, it makes it more attractive for Canadian farmers to ramp up wheat production in particular. But the higher costs for fertilizer, seeds, and diesel fuel mean farmers are having to make complex calculations.
“It’s never been more expensive to put a crop in the ground,” said Scott Ross, acting executive director with the Canadian Agriculture Federation.
Currie said cereals and corn “typically need a lot of nitrogen”; however, Russian fertilizer shipments entering Canada are subject to a 35 per cent tariff.
“Our nitrogen prices were hovering around $1,000 per tonne. So now all of a sudden, there’s $350 per tonne put on the nitrogen, so it’s an incredible increase in price. All of a sudden, you know, individual farmers are saying, ‘OK, do I switch crops? Or do I cut back?’”
Other crops such as canola are also rising in price and may be more profitable.
Canadian weather is already playing a big role in all decisions.
Ontario has had a drier than normal spring. Farmers in Saskatchewan and parts of Alberta are coping with ongoing poor soil conditions after last year’s drought, the worst in 70 years. “It’s so dry, they’re afraid to plant because it won’t sprout anyways,” said Currie. Meanwhile, in Manitoba, soggy wet weather has delayed planting.
Last week, the United Nations said the war has deepened a global food distribution crisis that threatens millions with starvation and is destabilizing vulnerable countries.
UN Secretary General António Guterres said 49 million people in 43 countries are in emergency levels of hunger, “just one step away from famine.”
“There is enough food for everyone in the world. The issue is distribution, and it is deeply linked to the war in Ukraine,” Guterres told the security council.
The World Food Program says that before the COVID-19 pandemic, 80 million to 135 million people were “marching to starvation.” Because of COVID-19, that number rose to 276 million people. WFP executive director David Beasley said last week that “because of the Ukrainian crisis,” that number will rise to 323 million “at least.” Ukraine alone, he said, used to grow enough food for 400 million people.
Ukraine and its allies charge that Russia has seeded Ukrainian farmland with mines and is blocking Black Sea ports or access to Ukraine’s grain silos. New reports suggest Russia is actively stealing Ukraine grain from silos and shipping it out.
Guterres said he is trying to reach an agreement that would allow Ukrainian grain to be shipped out via train or shipments through the Black Sea, and that would allow Russian fertilizer to reach world markets as well.
Moscow’s envoy to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, lashed out at the U.S. and allies like Canada, saying international sanctions and Ukraine itself is to blame for the current crisis.
“Let’s be clear: Russia’s invasion is to blame, not the sanctions,” replied Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly. “We are not sanctioning Russian and Belarusian fertilizers, the same way our G7 partners are not.”
Joly promised to increase Canadian exports of potash fertilizer to offset reduced supply from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, to provide more funding at the multilateral level to help agencies like the UN’s World Food Program, and logistical support to ease blockages in the supply chains.