In the early 1800s, thousands of immigrants arrived on the prairies. They brought seed grain and began growing wheat on small farms. When the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, settlers shipped their wheat to Britain and eventually, across the world. Over time, farmers expanded their crops to include grains such as rye, barley, flax and lentils.
Major grain crops
produced in Canada
High in essential
vitamins and minerals.
Rich in healthy fats.
Low in saturated fat
and trans fat free.
High in vitamins A, B, E
and many minerals
protein. Excellent source
of calcium and iron.
High in soluble fibres. Helps
to reduce cholesterol
High in fibre and folate.
100 grams of dry split red
lentils has more potassium
than a large banana.
Contains omega-3 essentialfatty
acids that can improve heart health.
High in selenium and
magnesium, which can
Not just for birds. High in
protein and naturally
Good source of vitamin E,selenium,
healthy fats and protein.
High in fibre. Can help
blood sugar and lower cholesterol.
A complete protein that
contains all 9 essential
High in antioxidants.
Could help to prevent
Rich in fibre, protein and
Wheat varieties and
While much of Canada’s wheat goes into making bread, pasta, cereal, biscuits, and crackers, there are many other uses for this versatile grain. Today, wheat is used to create products including:
- Golf tees
- Hair conditioner
- Laundry detergent
- Plastic bags
From farm life to city
Just 100 years ago, over half the people in Canada were farmers. Now, we have a population of 35 million, but there are less than 730,000 farmers.
We’re producing more food per acre on less land, and using less water, fertilizer and other resources to do so. In 1900, one farmer produced enough food for 10 people. Today, that same farmer Feeds more than 120 people. The use of new technology and modern, efficient equipment to farm with plays a big role in this.Farm and Food Care Canada
Art Napoleon begins his exploration of grain production in Saskatchewan with a trip to the farm, and a debate on organic vs conventional practices.
Why is grain important?
Grains are the harvested seeds of grasses like wheat, oats, rice, sorghum, millet, rye, corn and barley. In every culture around the world, people get about 48% of their calories from grains. For example, they grind wheat into flour to make bread, steam rice, and mix oats with water.
Grains provide carbohydrates for energy, and contain important vitamins and nutrients. They are easily stored for year-round use. Canada’s First Nations traditionally harvested and dried grains like corn, wheat and wild rice.
Supply and Demand
In 2016, farmers around the world produced about 2,500 million tonnes of grain. Canadian farmers contributed about 82 million tonnes to that total.
- Wheat – 31.7
- Canola - 18.4
- Corn for grain - 13.2
- Soybeans - 6.5
- Lentils - 3.2
- Barley - 8.8
Canadian Crop Production
Studies show that without modern advancements in grain farming, we would need about 50% more land to grow the same amount of food. Estimates also say the world will need 60% more food by 2050 in order to meet global demand. That’s why it’s so important for grain farmers to produce healthy crops in a safe and sustainable way.
In 2014, Canadian farms produced $55.7 billion worth of primary products, such as wheat and barley. These agricultural products are sold in their raw, unprocessed form. Grains and oilseeds (such as soybeans and mustard seed), represented 35.5% of those total farm sales in 2014, which highlights the value of grain farming for Canada’s economy.
Canada produces an average of 30M tonnes of wheat each year.
Canada is the largest producer of high-protein milling wheat
Wheat is primarily grown in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba & Ontario
Saskatchewan is the largest wheat producer in Canada
Wheat contributes $11 billion to Canada's economy every year.
Risks and threats
Canadian grain farms are at risk from a variety of human and environmental threats.
1. Bigger, more industrialized farms
Prairie grain farms are changing. The number of Canadian farms decreased by 10% in the last five years, but the average farm is 7% bigger. In Saskatchewan, the number of farms dropped by almost 17%, but grew in size by 15%.
The small, single-family farm is being replaced by large agricultural businesses. These farms are usually bigger, more industrialized, and have a whole staff of paid employees.
Agriculture uses more freshwater than nearly any human activity. Farm chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers and manure can runoff into the groundwater, which eventually finds its way into lakes, rivers and the ocean. These chemicals can pollute the freshwater that people, animals and plants rely on.
Pesticides can pose an especially significant threat to freshwater. These chemicals do not harm non-target organisms, including humans. When a chemical targets some species but not others, the ecosystem can become unbalanced. New pest species and diseases can emerge.
2. Biodiversity and genetic modification
Genetically modified (GM) foods are engineered to enhance specific traits and minimize (or eliminate) others. For example, seeds can be scientifically modified to change the colour and flavour of a food. Other GM foods produce crops that resist certain pests, or withstand different temperature and growing conditions.
Genome editing has produced herbicide-resistant canola, soybeans, corn and wheat, which can withstand the chemicals applied to kill weeds and pests.
Some people say GM crops are an important way for farmers to produce more viable crops and meet the world’s growing need for grains. Critics of GM foods say they create superweeds that resist increasingly potent herbicides. Others are concerned that GM seeds will naturally mingle with non-engineered crops, via wind, birds and animals, trucking, grain handling and transportation, and pollen. Farmers who choose organic methods (and need to meet legal requirements for GM content) could see their crops accidentally contaminated.
More than just GMO. There are many different ways that crops are modified. Some of these methods have been used for centuries, others are more recent.
Scientists, medical professionals and farmers also debate the long-term health effects of eating GM foods. A 2016 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine determined that there are no widespread health differences between countries like Canada and the United States (where GM foods have been consumed since the late 1990s) and the UK and western Europe, which has not had widespread GM agriculture.
The term biodiversity refers to all the different species, genetics and ecosystems in our world. We need biological diversity for a healthy planet – and healthy people. A strong ecosystem, for example, has plants that produce oxygen and clean our water.
Farms can also promote biodiversity
As farmers work to grow more food for more people, many now rely on seeds that consistently produce abundant crops. In the last 100 years, 75% of genetic plant diversity has been lost. More than 90% of the crop varieties we once cultivated are no longer grown in farmers’ fields.
A full 75% of the world’s food is produced from just 12 plants and five animal species.
The decline in agricultural biodiversity (also known as agrobiodiversity) has several main causes:
3. Globalization of food systems
Canada grows a lot of grain – and we send most of what we produce to countries around the world. In 2015-16, Canadian farms exported about 48.26 million tonnes of grain, oilseeds and pulses.
Exporting so much grain exposes farmers and producers to unpredictable global factors, including weather patterns, consumer trends, energy prices, commodity exchanges and the stock market. All of these factors affect the price, availability, and sustainability of Canadian grain crops.
According to current estimates, Canadian grain farmers export the following proportions of each total grain crop produced nationwide:
Where does the grain go?
Art visits the University of Saskatchewan, learns about Flax breeding and genetics, and discovers there is a European aversion to GMOs.
Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops
Formed in 2013 to facilitate cross-commodity collaboration on sustainable agriculture issues and the opportunities for grain sector participants. Includes growers, industry, customers and consumer organizations.
Centre for Indigenous and Environmental Resources
National, First Nations-directed environmental non-profit organisation with charitable status established in 1994 by a group of First Nations Chiefs from across Canada. CIER takes action on climate change, builds sustainable communities, protects lands and waters, and conserves biodiversity.
Changing crops with each different year and season can help the environment. Once the main crops, such as wheat or barley, are harvested, winter crops like fall rye, winter wheat and legumes can increase soil health. Rotating crops can also break disease cycles, minimize invasive weeds, and help to manage pests without using as much pesticide.
Low, no-till or conservation tillage agriculture
Placing seeds, fertilizer or manure in soil without turning it over can dramatically reduce soil erosion, conserve water and nutrients in the soil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by trapping carbon in the soil. It also means farmers have to make fewer passes over their fields with heavy machinery reducing the amount of fuel they burn by about 170 million litres per year.
No-till farming can reduce soil erosion by 90 to 95 per cent or more compared to conventional tillage practices and continuous no-till can make soil more resistant to erosion over time.Ag in the Classroom Canada
Gathering leftover crops after the harvest (called gleaning) can minimize food waste. This practice can also promote sustainability and increase local food security.
Micro farming, small-scale farms and co-ops
Small farms and co-ops can work together to market each other’s products. They can also build and promote a healthy environment and a fair, sustainable and secure food system. Many of these small, local organizations also participate in farmers markets and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs.
Innovative crops and
New ideas can improve grain farming for everyone. Precision agriculture uses modern equipment and technology, such as drones, to apply fertilizers or other applications exactly where they’re needed.
Cultivating efficient crops and new foods
In 1936, Alberta grew just 40 hectares of mustard seed. Now, Canada is the world’s largest exporter of this crop. About 67,500 metric tonnes, or 52% of our total mustard seed exports, go to the United States. The prairies are the ideal place to grow this drought-resistant, cool-weather seed. Researchers in Saskatchewan are also creating new yellow, brown and oriental mustard varieties for enhanced nutrition and better crop yields. Mustard seed can also be used to create more natural pesticides and fertilizers, and as a bio-diesel additive.
Crop diversification – Lentils and beans
Canada exports over 80% of our pulses (grain legumes including beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas) to other countries. Canadian scientists are also studying the health benefits of pulses, such as their potential to provide relief from inflammatory bowel disease and control blood sugar levels.
Safer fertilization and pest control
Adherence to 4R nutrient stewardship program for fertilizer application.
- Right source
- matches fertilizer type to crop needs
- Right rate
- matches amount of fertilizer type to crop needs
- Right time
- makes nutrients available when crops need them
- Right place
- keep nutrients where crops can use them.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada – Turning straw into gold
Manufacturers are working to create paper from wheat and flax straw. This innovation will give farmers a new income stream from a crop byproduct that would otherwise be waste.
Art visits a lab developing new varieties of wheat through conventional methods and has his fears about genetically modified crops allayed.
5 things you can do to support sustainable grain farming
Whenever possible, buy local products grown in your community. Buying local minimizes the need for transportation, which saves fuel and lowers GHG emissions. You are also supporting the people who work hard to grow healthy, nutritious food.
Don’t waste food. Research shows that almost half of all the food produced around the world is wasted during processing, transport, and after purchase in homes and kitchens.
Try new grains. Canadian farmers process everything from quinoa to chickpeas to barley. Look for interesting, Canadian-grown grains when you’re grocery shopping. The internet is filled with recipes and ways to use these high-quality products.
Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. It’s a great way to meet local farmers and eat fresh, healthy food.
Support policies and legislation that allows farmers (and farms of all sizes) to make a living growing food, here in Canada.