Wild fluctuations in weather patterns are taking a toll on this country's production of maple syrup, that quintessential symbol of Canadiana with origins stretching back hundreds of years. The province of Quebec, which generates roughly 75 per cent of maple syrup produced in the world, has been particularly hard hit, says Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, a maple-syrup aficionado and professor at the University of Guelph's Food Institute. For the past two decades, Charlebois has been studying the impact of rising – and increasingly mercurial – temperatures on this syrupy sweet, the production of which was worth $358-million in 2015, down from $380-million in 2014 and the $408-million peak in 2013, according to Statistics Canada. Charlebois says that weather is now the single biggest factor affecting the flow and production of the glorious goo.
Can you explain how weather affects the production of the sap?
A season can last six or seven weeks, depending on the weather pattern. You need a cold spell, followed by warm weather. But it can't be too drastic. It has to be progressive. Climate is a huge factor when it comes to production because you can have a short or prolonged season. Obviously when you're selling maple syrup to clients abroad you have to honour certain export contracts. So the steady flow of sap out of this market is very important.
How does the industry meet export quotas during shortened seasons?
More than 70 per cent of maple syrup is produced in Quebec, with 10 per cent from the rest of Canada, and the remaining 20 per cent outside of Canada (mainly in the United States, where the industry is growing). In 2004, Quebec set up a marketing board to regulate and manage a quota system. Currently, there are about 7,000 maple-syrup producers in the province of Quebec who own quotas. Every year that they produce maple syrup, they get a payment back from the marketing board, whose job is to sell maple syrup to the world. Some years, supply is abundant, so they keep a supply in strategic reserves. Currently there are more than 60 million litres in reserve in Quebec. So while climate change is a real issue for the industry, producers have been putting measures in place to mitigate weather-related risks for decades.
But is global warming putting more pressure on maple-syrup producers than in the past?
This year, in particular, has been a challenge. Typically the maple-syrup season is mid-February to March. This year, some producers started to get sap from trees in December. But whether it's related to climate change or not, weather has never been perfect. It's the nature of the maple-syrup business. The problem with warmer El Nino weather is you get more abrupt changes to weather patterns. It can be minus-20 one day, and plus-10 the next. All of which we've seen lately. Those kind of wild fluctuations can kill a season almost overnight. That's the danger.
How do you see the maple-syrup sector doing, say in, 10 years?
That's what the government of Quebec is trying to figure out. Right now, the Canadian maple-syrup industry is becoming less influential. The Americans are starting to become stronger players. So we need to figure out ways to better promote our product and sell it abroad. Our system is very bureaucratic in Canada, compared with the United States.
Is maple syrup big business here?
It's a very important market here, but no one can live off producing maple syrup alone. Most of these farms do other things, livestock, et cetera. But the real importance of maple syrup is its symbolism to this country. It's a commodity that is intertwined with the Canadiana brand. We have a maple leaf on our flag. Maple syrup is an important part of our culture and our identity. Not only domestically, but also abroad.
This interview has been condensed and edited.