Exchanging Ideas on Climate
National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy
Exchanging ideas on Climate

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Chapter 4
Agriculture Sector

The NRTEE?s examination of the Canadian agriculture sector and water use focuses on two areas: primary production and manufacturing. Primary production refers to the traditional definition of agriculture (crops, red meat, dairy). Manufacturing is focused on the processing of biofuels.

Although primary agricultural production accounts for less total water used in Canada than other natural resource sectors (10% of national use),66 it is the largest consumer of water in Canada, accounting for 66% of national consumption. Most of the water used by the sector is consumed into irrigation practices and is accounted for in plant uptake, deep percolation, and evaporation. However, not all primary production requires irrigation, so water use and consumption depends on the type of farming practices as well as climatic and regional characteristics. Agriculture practices may also impact water quality as they are a significant contributor of non-point source pollution.

Economic Importance of the Agriculture Sector to Canada

The value and contribution of the agriculture sector to both the public and the Canadian economy cannot be separated from the sector?s historical, cultural, and economic roots and its place in the Canadian landscape. Although the number of farms in Canada has decreased dramatically over time, the total area of cropland has increased.67 This trend is in part a result of the economic success of farms that are increasingly large and specialized and is important in the context of agricultural water use. It also has relevance in relation to the ?public licence to operate? and competing water interests.

Canadian agricultural producers provide more than 70% of the food bought in Canadian stores (2007).68 Agricultural production of goods and services contributed $14.9 billion in 2008,69 about two per cent of GDP, excluding food manufacturing. Its annual contribution is driven by many outside forces that affect the production and market value of its products such as water availability, temperature, humidity and frost, energy prices, and global demand and supply of major farm products, as manifested in their price changes in world markets.70

Highly volatile agricultural commodity prices and increased competition from other exporting countries challenge Canada?s growth in grain production and exports. Over the long term, the percentage increase in Canadian agricultural output is expected to exceed that of global population growth, with an average annual compounded growth rate of two per cent over 2008? 2030. The forecasts demonstrate that increasing global demand for biofuels may drive some crop prices up over the long term.71 This increased demand is the result of policy changes in the U.S., Canada, and many other developed countries. Current and anticipated growth in the biofuels sector is notable, given the rapid expansion of the sector since 2005. Annual production capacity was more than 1 billion litres for ethanol and 200 million litres for biodiesel in 2008.72 Projections for annual production capacity are 2.3 billion litres of ethanol and 67 million litres of biodiesel by 2012 (if all plants under construction come into production); however, lower oil prices caused the development of several facilities to be put on hold in early 2009.73 Ultimately, the growth of the biofuel industry will largely depend on government policies for reducing GHG emissions and resulting market impacts.74

Key Water Uses

Clean freshwater is vital to the production of fruits, vegetables, and cereal foods consumed by humans, as well as the grains used for human and animal consumption. Water is also crucial to the production of meat and of fuel derived from crops and animal by-products.

It is important to note that the existing data on water use vary in availability and accuracy across the agriculture sector. Livestock operations have a good handle on their water use, as do largescale irrigation districts common in Alberta. But most irrigation systems used by farmers are not equipped with water meters, so accurate data on water use is unavailable. Statistics Canada continues to refine its Agricultural Water Use Survey.

Water use by the sector varies greatly across Canada, and by agricultural product. Together, British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan account for 92% of total national agricultural water use.75 As shown in Figure 12, crop irrigation makes up the majority of water used by the sector, drawing approximately 77%, while livestock farming uses 20%. Although total water used by agricultural greenhouse growers accounted for only one per cent, it is worth noting that this sector increased use by 21% between 2001 and 2006.


Due to irrigation, the agriculture sector consumes more water than any other natural resource sector in Canada.

Anticipated increases in demand for irrigation, meat, consumable crops, and biofuels, coupled with the pressures expected from the effects of climate change, will likely result in increased water demand by the agriculture sector.

Key issues facing the agriculture sector are:

- Climate change adaptation

- Impacts on water quality and ecosystems


Distribution of Agricultural Water Use


Water Use and Loss in Agriculture Production

Irrigation is the largest consumptive use of water in Canada.77 In regions where irrigation is widespread, the ratio of water use to availability is higher than in other regions in Canada. Although the majority of farms in Canada are ?dryland farms,? meaning that they rely on natural precipitation only, the prevalence of dryland farms is rapidly changing. By virtue of need and availability, irrigation practices vary greatly by region. Demand is driven by the type of crop, soil conditions, and the end use of the crop, in combination with climate and seasonal variations. British Columbia is presently more dependant on irrigation than any other provinces, with 17% of the total cultivated area being irrigated. This is followed by Alberta and Nova Scotia, where 4.6% and 2.9% of the provincial cultivated area is under irrigation.78 Although water licences are only proxies for actual water use, they demonstrate that irrigation nearly doubled in most provinces (with the exception of British Columbia) between 1950 and 2001 (Figure 13).

Estimates from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada show that there remain over 3 million hectares of land with ?irrigation potential? in Canada as shown in Figure 14, half of which are found in Saskatchewan. Some industry estimates of potential expansion exceed these numbers. For example, a recent report from the Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association recommends a tripling of the irrigated areas in Southwestern Saskatchewan (the province?s most water-stressed region). While areas of designated irrigation potential may fall into watersheds that are not under stress right now, there is no framework to consider irrigation development in the context of current and future water needs.79


Irrigation Development in Canada, 1950-2001


Irrigation Potential in Canada

Livestock Production

Livestock production accounts for much less water use than irrigation, at approximately five per cent.82 Yet the sector is far more water-intensive than staple crop production, with most of this water drawn from groundwater resources. Livestock production is critically dependant upon a stable supply of high-quality water for animal maintenance (for digestion, absorption of nutrients), to deal with heat stress, as well as for cleaning and maintaining stalls.

The impacts of livestock production on water resources are two-fold. From the perspective of water quality, there are issues around the management of contamination caused by animal wastes, antibiotics, hormones, chemicals from tanners, fertilizers. Water contamination also occurs as a result of pesticides used for feed crops and sediments from eroded pastures.83 Sound land management practices and containment can be used to control the adverse effects associated with applying manure to lands and livestock grazing. However, there are fewer opportunities for controlling the amount of water required to maintain livestock. This is influenced by the type of livestock, its activity level, local air temperature and humidity, feed composition, and a variety of other factors.84 If Canada responds to increasing demands for meat products in emerging countries like China and India, demand for water will also increase.

Biofuel Production

Biofuel production, whether from plant-based feedstocks or animal wastes, requires the same amount of water as the production of crops and livestock for other uses. Examining the full production process, water is also required to convert feedstocks to fuel at biorefineries, although relatively speaking this volume of water is smaller than the water requirements of crop irrigation or livestock production. The issues and impacts of processing biofuels are similar to those at breweries and other industrial processing facilities that require heating and cooling. Consumptive uses of water at ethanol biorefineries are largely due to evaporation losses from cooling towers, evaporation losses from drying-fluid discharge, and wastewater discharge. For biodiesel production, water is added as a catalyst and is consumed through both evaporative loss and discharge.

The biofuel sector has received attention in certain parts of the world, in particular the United States. The increased demand for feedstocks has been held responsible for a spike in food prices, creating what is known as the ?food-versus-fuel debate.? Questions are also raised about the relative emission reductions of biofuel production, from a life-cycle perspective. It is also frequently pointed out that water demands have traditionally not been considered in policies aimed at expanding the use of biofuels. The local implications of meeting biofuel demands could have significant implications for water availability and potentially for water quality.

Total water use and consumption per unit of fuel produced vary by feedstock, fuel, and production process. Estimates of water use and consumption to convert feedstock to fuel are presented in Table 6. These figures exclude water uses and consumption from growing feedstocks. Estimates for cellulosic ethanol are expected to be refined as these processes become more mainstream. Table 6 is based on U.S. analysis and therefore may not correlate fully to Canadian estimates.85 At the same time, these numbers highlight the need for further analysis within Canada in order to inform policy decisions for both today and the future. The Canadian government is beginning to examine the cumulative water impacts of future growth of the sector, but much of this information remains unknown today.


Water Use at Biorefineries by Fuel Type

Key Water Issues

Climate Change Adaptation

Extreme weather events such as drought are predicted to increase as a result of climate change and will vary considerably from one region to another. The need to address drought potential has led the agricultural sector to move forward on a more sophisticated strategy for adaptation to climate change ? more so than in other resource sectors. Producers are inclined to address weather and precipitation using the traditional methods of short-term adaptation with which they have always responded. But the relevance of the regional expression of climate change and the implications it will have on regional patterns on climate variability will require a more concerted response. 87

The risks associated with failure to meet water demands are well known to agriculture in many regions of Canada. The prolonged drought of the 1930s shaped the culture of water risk for Canadians. And again in 2009, competition for scarce water resources forced governments to curtail agricultural use in British Columbia, where farmers on the Nicola River were forced to limit their use in an effort to maintain water levels for salmon spawning.88 Examples of conflicts over water currently exist in regions such as the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia (between fruit growers and residential users) and Ontario (between different agriculture producers). In the South Saskatchewan River Basin, where water allocations exceed environmental flow requirements in much of the Basin89 and where agriculture is responsible for approximately 75% of water allocated (2006),90 water managers may be forced to make some difficult decisions about future water use. In Southwestern Ontario, governance mechanisms such as the Irrigation Advisory Committee have been put in place to avoid and resolve such conflicts.91

As farmland becomes progressively more focused on planting higher-value crops, it is likely that water demand will increase and competition for scarce water resources will arise. There is strong evidence that the Prairie Provinces will likely face long periods of drought. Added pressures to water supplies including ecosystem allocations and population growth may cause a crisis in water quantity and quality with far-reaching implications for the sector.92 In addition to the risks associated with a warmer, drier climate, global climate models are also projecting more climate variability characterized by increased frequency of severe drought and extreme weather-related events such as hail and floods, which will have ramifications for crop success and increased run-off affecting water quality.

In general, an increase in drought conditions could lead to increased irrigation of farmland, which can impact water quantity (surface and groundwater levels) and quality (from increased erosion and runoff of eroded soil). In warmer climates, greater evaporation may also occur depending on the nature of the irrigation technique. Climate change impacts and competing uses in some regions may pose water availability or even scarcity challenges. The implications for the longterm viability of lands and ecosystem integrity are a core challenge in these regions. Increased water use by the sector has historically resulted in direct and indirect wetland depletion, which affects water availability and quality for future generations.93

Impacts on Water Quality and Ecosystems

In terms of environmental impacts, the challenge of contamination due to sedimentation, pathogens, pesticides, and nutrient loads are pervasive. In some regions of Canada, these impacts have become particularly pronounced, affecting the availability of clean water for other uses. Examples include communities in Prince Edward Island that rely on aquifers for drinking water,94 or Lake Winnipeg where ecosystem services have been compromised. In response, farmers are increasingly adopting water protection practices, such as growing buffer strips of vegetation around waterways and wetlands.95

Drivers, Challenges and Opportunities

Water efficiency in the agriculture sector is driven mainly by energy costs associated with transporting water. Water metering is not common across most operations, with irrigation districts being the exception. In 2002?2003, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the National Water Supply Expansion Program completed an extensive survey of water supply and management issues facing Canada?s agriculture. The study concluded that Canada?s agricultural resources are significantly vulnerable and current water infrastructure is insufficient. The emphasis in this context is often based on expanding irrigation and storage capacity. In many areas of the country, improvements in water-use efficiency through infrastructure, land management, and biotechnology could be employed to reduce vulnerability. The study suggests that deficiencies in current practices are often a result of the limited learning, extension, and technical assistance opportunities provided to producers, pointing to areas of significant opportunity. Further improvements in irrigation technology and scheduling, as well as a shift in where certain crops are grown in respect to local climate conditions, should also be part of the future solution.96

In areas where crops are grown strictly for biofuel production, the demand on freshwater could be reduced by irrigating with wastewater or moderately saline water.97 As cellulosic ethanol technologies are refined and developed commercially, the production and cultivation of less water-intensive feedstocks also offer a promising option for reducing the use of irrigation water. Over time, efficiency gains have been made in ethanol production by improving water recycling efforts and cooling systems.98 Further opportunities exist to improve the design of cooling towers and boiler-feed operations and to incorporate the use of recycled wastewater in biorefineries.99

The improved use of market mechanisms to support both the efficient allocation of water across users (such as water pricing and the water market introduced in Southern Alberta), and improved societal and ecological services in integrated land management have been heralded for their potential to improve water use by the sector. Land management decisions that are beneficial to local water bodies and improve water use have a place in integrated watershed management planning and can be encouraged through market mechanisms. In general, greater emphasis should be put on the role of agriculture in ensuring ecosystem health at the watershed level.100

In Summary

Water-related issues in the agriculture sector are highly localized, but economically significant nationally. As the sector?s need for irrigation increases from demands for higher-value crops and efforts to convert dryland operations, the risks associated with water limitations will continue to rise. The sector is at risk because of climate-change effects that result in reduced spring runoff and prolonged cyclical drought. If public scrutiny over irrigation in Canada?s water-stressed regions continues to mount, the agriculture sector may be forced to defend its water entitlements in the face of other expanding social and environmental water demands. Water availability issues, as well as regulatory and reputational challenges, will continue to plague the sector until a more proactive approach is taken. There are significant opportunities for agricultural lands to be better utilized to protect and enhance ecosystem services.

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