How we came to be in the midst of a great maple syrup drought

maple syrup reserve

The global strategic maple syrup reserve. Source: Quebec Maple Syrup Producers.

In a small Canadian town with a population of 5600, on an unremarkable road next to a hardware chain, a warehouse holds 45 million kilograms of the country’s liquid gold.

It is so precious that 10 years ago thieves made off with nearly 3 million kilograms, a loot valued at an eye-watering $25 million. A third of it was never recovered.

The warehouse holds the world’s only maple syrup reserve, controlled by a syrup cartel, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (QMSP).

It is basically the OPEC of a sweeter liquid, and this year — for perhaps the first time since the infamous great maple syrup heist in 2012 — it is in deep trouble. It has been forced to part with half of its vault’s contents — 22 million kilograms of maple syrup — to top up a gaping hole in supplies around the world, including in Australia.

The reason? Climate change.

The production of maple syrup relies on a very precise forecast. It must be above freezing during the day, but below freezing at night. This is because the sugar maples, native only to eastern Canada (and some north-eastern parts of the United States), need both freezing temperatures to make the sap and warmer temperatures for it to thaw and flow.

Quebec is suffering from something called the ice-albedo feedback loop which means there is less and less snow cover. That means the snow is absorbing the sun instead of reflecting it.

One Quebec farmer called this year’s the worst drought she’d ever seen — indeed, 30-40% less rain fell in spring, according to Environment Canada. This has meant as much as a quarter of the regular harvest was missing.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s damning report showed Quebec (and southern Ontario, its neighbouring province) are warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Future winters could be as much as eight degrees warmer as a result, according to the hydrology climate change laboratory at Montreal’s École de technologie supérieure.

But those familiar with the notorious Quebec cartel know there is more to the story.

On top of climate change, global demand has surged by more than 36% in the past year (according to QMSP). Quebec has a monopoly on maple syrup, producing three-quarters of the world’s supply. And every single one of the 7400 maple syrup businesses in Quebec has to pay QMSP if they want to sell to more than 50 countries.

The QMSP sets prices and, like De Beers and its diamonds, can control the market based on how much of its reserve it releases. So when Quebec’s weather is unpredictable, the problems for such a centralised reserve of syrup come thick and fast.

If the pressure is getting to the syrup cartel, however, Helene Normandin from QMSP (perhaps hopped up on the sweet stuff) didn’t show it. She told US radio: “That’s why the reserve is made, to never miss maple syrup. And we won’t miss maple syrup!”

But with half the world’s only reserve depleted, another bad year could see maple syrup go from a household staple to a hot commodity.

The all-powerful QMSP has released licences for as many as 7 million more maple tree taps next year, hoping to ensure pancake stacks worldwide won’t be left high and dry.

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