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Food and Drink

A big fat grain for a big fat country

Wheat is big in Canada and Canada is big on wheat.

In fact, you could say that Canada is wheat, especially if you're from the Canadian prairies, as are many people in this part of the world. (Albertans joke that B.C. is downhill from the Rockies all the way, so many of us tend to tumble out sideways and land on the West Coast.)

But in only two short generations, the majority of Canadians have traded in their rural lifestyles for the jobs and vibe of the city. These days we barely know our wheat from the chaff, especially when change is afoot for this powerhouse of a crop.

First, the demographics of our farms themselves are changing rapidly. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, in the early 1980s about 20 per cent of Canada's 318,000 farms were classified wheat farms. Now those numbers have dropped significantly, with wheat farms accounting for only about 5 per cent of the current total of 229,000 farms. That's about a one-third drop in the total number of Canadian farms in one generation.

But despite the decline in wheat farm numbers, their production is higher than ever, part of the growing trend of industrialized farming. This year, Canada expects to break all previous production records and harvest 17.4 million tonnes of wheat from our fair prairie provinces, which account for the lion's share of the total Canadian harvest at $2.5 billion of our economy.

The prairies generate about three times the amount of wheat needed for domestic consumption so most of it goes for export. Ergo the formation of the Canadian Wheat Board in 1935, ironically, in the midst of another great economic crash, to act as a single, strong agent for marketing western grains. And here's where another big change is happening.

The idea behind the wheat board was strength - and better prices for individual farmers - in numbers. So all the wheat, barley and oats intended for export and for domestic human consumption in Canada have been sold through the wheat board, rather than individual producers trying to sell on their own. In a nutshell, the wheat board has been as emblematic of the big reach of Canadian wheat as the images of this golden grain in Alberta and Saskatchewan's provincial crests.

Or at least this has been the case for generations, until the Conservative party in Ottawa fulfills its election promise and dismantles the board by August 1, 2012, something one grain handler says will mean "blood on the streets." He may be right: 62 per cent of the farmers who are members of the wheat board voted recently to retain it. Since farmers can be as stubborn as they are stalwart, stand by for the shake-out on that one.

Another big change wheat farmers around the world are contending with is climate change. Although this year's harvest of 17.4 million tonnes is a very big pile of wheat and, as noted earlier, a record-breaker, it's still about 300,000 tonnes short of the Statistics Canada estimate from two years ago, or about 15 per cent below 2005-09 averages.

The culprit? It's the hugely disappointing weather this spring and summer. Overall, 2011 was a lousy grain-producing, a lousy everything-producing year for anyone growing anything west of Ontario. Just ask our Pemberton farmers. Mostly it was too cold and wet for seeds to germinate and get growing, then it was terribly hot and dry in many areas, which helped some farms but dried up others.

Officials in North America lay all this at the feet of the La Niña effect. Scientists and meteorologists aren't allowed to -yet - but I will go one step further and venture these effects are being exaggerated by climate change. (A report recently released by the European Commission's Joint Research Center states that global carbon dioxide emissions generated by humans rose 5.8 per cent in 2010 to the highest level ever recorded.)

Changing climatic regimes are impacting the production of wheat - and virtually all other crops - around the world. For instance, changes in precipitation levels and temperatures and their timing are causing one form of rust that destroys wheat crops to move out of Africa and into the Arabian peninsula, where it can spread to Europe and Russia. Bear in mind that it takes an average of 12 years for horticulturalists to develop a new variety of wheat that could be resistant to this spreading wheat rust, or any other new pest or pestilence, something that has scientists worried about our traditional "bread basket" for humanity.

But even with the lousy weather this year, Canada will still harvest enough this fall to retain our No. 6 world ranking in wheat production and, for one last year, our No. 1 ranking in sales, in size, from a single entity, namely our former mighty and soon-to-be-dismantled Canadian Wheat Board.

So why should you or I, good Canadians that we are, care about all this? Here's a quick bite on how singular and important wheat is, despite the way we non-farm dwellers take it, and most of our food sources, for granted.

Although it's an ancient grain (wheat, barley and spelt were found in prehistoric delta settlements dating to 4000 BCE along the Nile), wheat was first grown in Canada in the early 1600s near what was then called Port Royal, now Annapolis Royal, in Nova Scotia.

After much trial and error - winter wheat varieties from Europe couldn't stand the test of Canadian prairie winters, and spring wheat matured too late to cope with the short growing season - one variety eventually developed in Ontario, called Red Fife, became the saviour of the Canadian wheat industry and countless pioneering families, who ground their own wheat for flour to make the mainstays of life.

In bread, spaghetti, cakes or otherwise, people are hungry for wheat. It's versatile, tasty, and nutritious. Depending on the variety, wheat contains 9 to 15 per cent protein, compared to 7 to 8 per cent protein in rice. We humans will eat close to 700 million tonnes of wheat this year alone, making it one of the top three foods, along with rice and maize, that keep us chugging along.

Take a look at Wheaties, the "breakfast of champions," which has been around for 75+ years. With any luck our wheat farmers will be around for another 75 years themselves as they face all these changes and more.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who's so glad she isn't allergic to wheat.