Section 1: Food in Canada

Warning View the most recent version.

Archived information

Archived information is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please "contact-us" to request a format other than those available.



Food is much more than a commodity to be bought and sold. We can't live without it and it plays a significant role in our culture and daily lives.

Canadians represent about 0.5% of the global population, 1  produce about 1.5% of the food in the world, and consume about 0.6% of world food production. 2  In 2004, Canada ranked 8th in the world for production of cereals, including wheat, barley and oats; 10th in meat production; and 19th in fisheries and aquaculture production (Table 1.1). As the global population increases, the interdependency of food, energy, water, land and biological resources becomes more apparent.

As a commodity, food is an important component of Canada's national economy. In 2007, $92 billion was spent on food and beverages in stores for household use, 3  and an additional $50 billion in restaurants and bars. 4  More than 70% of the food bought in Canadian stores in 2007 was produced domestically. 5  The United States is the source of more than half (57%) of imported food, and similarly 55% of domestic food exports from Canada are directed to the United States. 6  While the amount spent on food and alcohol is increasing, it is not keeping pace with expenditures on other goods and services. In 1961 Canadians dedicated 28% of their personal expenditures to food, whereas by 2007 this amount had decreased to 17% (Chart 1.1).

Canadians are not only spending more on food, but they are also buying more calories. 7 , 8  Between 1976 and 2007 the number of calories available per person increased 9% from 3,118 to 3,384 kilocalories. Some of this food however is wasted, and it is estimated that in 2007 only 71% of the calories purchased were consumed. 9  Food that was not consumed includes waste or spoilage in stores, households, institutions and restaurants, and losses during preparation.

A common image associated with agricultural food production is the small mixed farm, but over the years farms have become more specialized and average farm size has increased. Between 1931 and 2006, the total farm area in Canada increased slightly, while the number of farms in operation decreased almost 70% from 728,623 to 229,373. 10  In addition to crop and animal production the commercial fisheries are an important source of food. In 2005, more than 16,500 marine vessels in Canada landed more than 1 million tonnes of seafood worth more than $2 billion. 11 

Food production is much more than just agriculture and fisheries however. After food is produced or caught it might be handled by wholesalers, processed, packaged, sold, prepared, repackaged and resold. Many of these steps include transportation, retail, or advertising services. The type, magnitude and spatial distribution of these integrated activities is integral to understanding the impact of food production and services on the environment. Decisions regarding durable goods, like cars, are made only occasionally: decisions about what non-durable goods to purchase, like food, are made daily. Typically food goods are produced using energy-intensive processes whereas services, provided by retail outlets and restaurants, are less energy-intensive. 12 , 13 

There has been considerable interest in the global diversion of corn from the food system to produce biofuels. In 2006 Canada contributed almost 600 million litres, or just over 1% of the global production of 51 billion litres of ethanol. 14  In Canada, ethanol is made from wheat in the western provinces, and from corn in Ontario and Quebec. Production of ethanol in Canada in 2006 required about 0.5 Mt of wheat and 1.0 Mt of corn. 15  This represents 2% of the total production of 25.3 Mt of wheat and 11% of the total production of 9 Mt of corn for grain. 16 

The Canadian food system

The Canadian food system includes all the products produced and the processes and activities carried out to put food on tables at home, in restaurants and to provide food products for export. Data collected primarily for economic reasons can be used to provide insight into the potential impact the food system has on the Canadian environment (Text box: Important terms).

Primary sector: agriculture and fisheries

Agriculture and fisheries make up the primary food sector, and activities are carried out in crop production, animal production, aquaculture, and commercial fisheries. Only about 7% of the total land area in Canada is used for agriculture, and soil and climate conditions are such that most agricultural land is concentrated in the southern portion of the country. Almost 70% of Canada's agricultural land is suitable for growing crops (arable land). In Australia, a country that supports large herds of grazing animals, only about 11% of their total agricultural land is arable land. Globally Canada ranks 7th in the world for total amount of arable land (Table 1.2).

Food grown in home gardens, or harvested from the wild for personal use, is a small, but culturally significant, source of food that also belongs in the primary sector (Text box: Non-commercial food sources). These foods are not bought and sold in the economy, and data on them are limited.

Secondary sector: food-related manufacturing

The set of activities that are involved in food-related manufacturing make up the secondary food sector. These activities involve the production of goods from raw materials, and include food and beverage manufacturing, fertilizer and pesticide manufacturing, and agricultural machinery manufacturing.

In 2007, food-related manufacturing accounted for 12.1% of total manufacturing sales, a share that has remained consistent over the last decade. 17  This corresponded to $74.2 billion in sales, 17  and employment of over 219,000 people. 18 

Tertiary sector: food-related services

The tertiary food sector includes the set of activities related to the provision of food-related services. It includes for example, transportation, food services, food retail, wholesale trade of crops and livestock, and marketing.

Important terms

Appreciation of how the following terms are defined in this article will facilitate the discussion of the environmental complexities that surround the production, processing and distribution of food in Canada.

Agricultural land: land suitable for agriculture.

Arable land: land that can be used for growing crops.

Canadian food system: includes all the products produced and the processes and activities carried out to put food on tables at home, in restaurants and to provide food for export. It also includes the activities associated with imported foods once they have entered the country.

Employment: employment figures in this article come primarily from the Labour Force Survey (LFS). According to the LFS, employed persons are those who, during the survey reference week did any work for pay or profit, or had a job and were absent from work. This survey reports employment by industry and occupation based on details related to the main job of the respondent.

Energy-intensity: the amount of energy consumed per unit of economic activity.

Farm: the area of land used for farming activities such as growing crops and rearing animals. This includes land occupied by farm-buildings.

Farm area: the total area of land on a farm.

Farmland: includes cropland, summerfallow and pasture lands.

Food-related employment: direct and indirect employment related to the Canadian food system.

Food-related gross domestic product (GDP): the value contributed to the economy (GDP) by the activities of the Canadian food system, including direct and indirect effects of expenditures on food.

Greenhouse gas emission intensity: the volume of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) emitted per unit of economic activity.

Non-commercial food sources

Gardening, hunting, fishing and harvesting wild foods such as mushrooms, nuts, and berries are activities carried out by many Canadians. These activities contribute food to our food system that is typically not captured by our statistical measures. Recent surveys however, have collected data on the use of country food by the Inuit. The Inuit are the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic who live mostly in coastal communities in the North.

In 2005, 68% of Inuit adults in the Canadian Arctic harvested country food. In two-thirds of Inuit households, at least half the meat and fish eaten was of country origin. The tradition of food sharing remains strong in the North: in 2005 eight in ten Inuit households shared harvested food with others.

Caribou, seals, ducks, whale, fish and berries are examples of country foods that have been harvested from the wild by Inuit for thousands of years. The harvesting and sharing of country food is a valuable activity that reinforces the importance of family and community.

In the North, store-bought food, usually originating in the South, is often expensive due to high storage and transportation costs. The Revised Northern Food Basket, which monitors the cost of a nutritious diet for a family of four for one week, cost between $350 and $450 in northern isolated communities such as Repulse Bay, Nunavut or Old Crow, Yukon, in 2006 or 2007. During the same time period, this food basket cost between $195 and $225 in southern Canadian cities, such as Ottawa or Edmonton. In addition, foods transported in from the South are not always fresh, and country food offers a more nutritious alternative. Country foods are healthy, rich in essential nutrients and low in sugars and unhealthy fats. The most recent version of the Canada Food Guide included a guide for First Nations, Inuit and Métis integrating traditional food from the land and sea.


Health Canada, 2007, Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide: First Nations, Inuit and Métis, (accessed December 8, 2008).

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2008, Revised Northern Food Basket – Highlights of Price Survey Results for 2006 and 2007, 2008 (accessed December 15, 2008).

Tait, Heather, 2008, "Inuit Health and Social Conditions," Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 2006, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 89-637-X, no. 001.


Historical perspective on farming and fishing

The history of food in Canada begins with the hunting and gathering, fishing and farming lifestyles of First Nations peoples. In Eastern Canada, Aboriginal communities farmed corn, beans and squash around the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence, and nomadic groups hunted and gathered throughout the Boreal forest. Bison were central to life on the plains and salmon to life on the Pacific Coast.

In the 16th century, Europeans started fishing for cod off of Newfoundland. Though records exist on the fish catch back to 1874, comparisons to the modern day are difficult since records were kept differently. In 1899, dried cod, dried hake, canned salmon, fresh herring, and fresh lobster made up the bulk of the commercial catch. 19 

French settlers began farming in Acadia and New France in the 1600s. In the west, settlers started farming at the Red River Colony after 1812. Agriculture took off throughout the Prairies after Confederation since incoming settlers received title to a quarter section 20  of land if they built a home and cultivated a fifth of the area within three years.


In 1921, Canada was largely a rural country, with half of Canadians living in rural areas, 21  compared to less than a fifth of the population in 2006. 22  The number of people living on the farm has also declined since the early 20th century. Almost a third of Canadians lived on farms in 1931, compared to 2% in 2006 (Chart 1.2).

In 1921, agriculture was the single most common occupation, employing 1,041,618 Canadians and accounting for 33% of all jobs, followed by manufacturing (17%), trade (10%) and transportation (8%). 23  In comparison, 346,400 Canadians were primarily employed in agriculture in 2006, accounting for 2% of total employment. 24 

In 1921, 711,090 farms covered 57.0 million hectares (ha) of land, with 20.2 million ha of cropland. Since then, the number of farms has decreased while farm area and the total area of cropland have increased (Chart 1.3). Production of many crops, including wheat, barley, grain corn, field peas, flaxseed, and dry beans has experienced large growth from 1908 to 2008 (Chart 1.4). As well, many new crops, including canola, soybeans and fodder corn are now grown extensively in Canada.

Agricultural productivity improved over this time period as well—increased use of fertilizers, pesticides, better seed varieties and improved agricultural practices and technology resulted in increases in the average yield per hectare. For example, over the past century, the average yield of wheat, oats, barley, and grain corn all more than doubled. 25 

As farms specialized, the number of livestock produced in Canada increased. From 1921 to 2006, the total number of cattle and calves on farms grew 88% to 15.8 million. Over the same period, the number of pigs rose from 3.3 million to 15.0 million, while the number of chickens rose from 41.1 million to 125.3 million. 10 

With mechanization, farms switched from horse power to tractors. The number of horses on farms declined from a peak of 3.5 million in 1921 to less than 454 thousand in 2006. 10  Horses were generally kept as work animals, but are now used more for recreational pursuits. Tractor use is now the norm—there were 733,182 tractors on farms in 2006 and 92% of farms had at least one tractor. In comparison only 6% of farms had a tractor in 1921. 10 

In 2006, 327,070 farmers operated 229,373 farms. 26  Farming is still mainly a family business in Canada. In addition, the most economically successful farms are increasingly larger and more specialized. Gross farm receipts were $42.2 billion in 2005, up 10% from 2000. 27  The number of farms with over a million dollars in receipts has risen in recent decades, with the proportion of million dollar farms rising from 0.3% in 1980 to 2.6% in 2005. 10  These large farms accounted for 40% of total farm receipts and are more likely to be profitable—86% of farms with receipts over a million dollars covered their operating costs in 2005 compared to 56% of all farms. 28 

Agriculture, whether it occurs on small or large farms, can result in environmental impacts. Many practices have been developed that reduce potential negative environmental impacts from agricultural activities. For example, instead of leaving fields bare, farmers often retain crop residue on the soil surface by reducing tillage. The residue cover protects the soil from erosion and increases the organic matter content of the soil. In addition, careful management of manure storage and application controls odours and minimizes run-off, protecting water quality. These two examples of beneficial management practices demonstrate ways to farm while minimizing risks to the environment.


In 1921, 29,292 people reported fishing or trapping as their chief occupation or trade, 0.9% of total employment. Historically, fishing and fish processing contributed heavily to employment in coastal communities, with many fishers seasonally engaged in fishing. However, the collapse of cod and other ground fish stocks off the East Coast in the 1990s resulted in lower employment in the industry. Fishing, aquaculture and seafood processing employed 70,300 people in 1990, representing 0.5% of total employment. 29  By 2006, this figure had declined to 52,100, accounting for 0.3% of total employment.

Following the decline in the early 1990s, the commercial fish catch has remained relatively stable in recent years. In 2007, over 1 million tonnes of fish and shellfish, valued at almost $2 billion, were harvested. 30  Shrimp, herring, hake, scallop, mackerel and lobster made up the bulk of commercial landings. 31 

Commercial aquaculture dates back to the 1950s. It was not until the 1980s, however, that production really began to develop. 32  Aquaculture production grew from 73,187 tonnes in 1996 to 172,374 tonnes in 2006, a 136% increase (Chart 1.5).

Many Canadians also enjoy fishing for recreation. Overall, 2.4 million adult Canadian residents fished in 2005, down from 3.3 million in 1995. The popularity of recreational fishing varies in different regions of the country. About one in ten adults fished for fun in 2005, though this proportion rose to one in three in Newfoundland and Labrador (Chart 1.6).

Catch-and-release sport fishing has become more popular among recreational fishers. Resident anglers kept one third of their catch in 2005, down from almost three-quarters in 1985. Tourists were more likely than residents to participate in catch-and-release fishing.



The Canadian food system includes all the products produced and the processes and activities carried out to put food on tables at home, in restaurants and to provide goods for export. This includes the activities of industries in the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy related to food production and distribution. While still a multi-billion dollar industry, the relative contribution of the Canadian food system to gross domestic product (food-related GDP) and employment has been decreasing (Chart 1.7). This is corroborated by the trend shown in Chart 1.1 that total personal spending has increased relatively more than spending on food and alcohol since 1961. Canadians are also consuming more overall, and spending a smaller portion of their income on food than citizens of many other countries (Table 1.3).

Even though the relative contribution of the food system to employment in Canada has decreased, the number of people employed in this area did increase slightly over the past four decades. In 1964, 7.1 million people were employed in Canada, and about 12% of these, or about 820,000 people, worked in some aspect of the food system. By 2004 this group had grown to about 860,000 workers (5% of the total 16.2 million employed). 33  In 2004 the food system contributed $52 billion to the $1.2 trillion gross domestic product (GDP). 34 

Input-output tables at Statistics Canada

The input-output component of the Canadian System of National Accounts at Statistics Canada represents the chain of industrial activities related to production and final expenditures. This consists of three tables:

  1. gross output of commodities (goods and services), by producing industries;
  2. industry use of commodities and primary inputs; and
  3. final expenditures of households, business investment, governments and foreign consumers, by commodity.

Together these tables provide a detailed account of the commodities produced by industry and of commodities purchased by industry or the final demand sector. The measures may be used to tie together commodity sales by industry with industry purchases of those commodities to reveal the extent to which industries are interdependent. It also shows the extent to which an industry is primarily serving intermediate or final demand. Typically this information is used in economic analysis, but it can also be used to show how our activities impact the environment.

To illustrate, of the 303 industries included in these tabulations, 10 are responsible for two-thirds of the inputs (measured in dollars) into the Bakery and Rolls Industry. Five of these 10 industries supply food product inputs, including flour and sugar, and account for 48% of total inputs. Other industries, including the Plastic Film, Sheet and Bag Manufacturing (6% of inputs), and the Electric Power Generation, Transmission and Distribution (2%) are also in the top ten.

Since the Input-Output tables show the costs of production of goods and services plus the value of imports, this financial relationship can be used to gain insight into the environmental implications of economic activities. For example, sales of bread in 2004 totalled $2.6 billion. From the tables described above the relationship between this demand for bread and the industry activities that produce plastic bags, advertising, electricity, and a suite of other products is known. Energy use and greenhouse gas emissions can then be related to total industrial production: energy use and emissions caused by final expenditures on selected products and services can be estimated.

Source(s): Statistics Canada, 2008, Guide to the Income and Expenditure Accounts, Catalogue no. 13-017-X.

The information in this section is derived from Canada's input-output tables, a statistical representation of the interrelation between the various sectors of the economy. The main feature of simulations based upon these tables is their ability to estimate the total effects 35  of spending by consumers, including the effects of spending that occurred in earlier stages of goods and services production. Use of the input-output tables also allows us to classify inputs to the Canadian food system based on whether they come from the primary, secondary or tertiary sector of the economy. This analysis does not include the foreign production stimulated by imported goods and services.

Food contributions to gross domestic product

The distribution of food-related GDP across the economy has shifted in recent decades (Chart 1.8). In 1964, primary production from agriculture and fisheries contributed 28% to food-related GDP. By 2004 this share had decreased to 13%. In contrast the relative contribution of services (the tertiary sector) increased from 38% to 56%. This increase is consistent with the general trend in Canada. Gradually, the proportion of the total economy stemming from services has been increasing, growing from 65% in 1984 to 69% in 2004. 36 

For all products, including food, there is a difference between the price paid by the consumer and the price received by the producer. This difference, or margin, is added by wholesalers, retailers, taxes on products, and companies that transport the goods. In total, margins accounted for 29% of food costs in 1964, whereas in 2004 they were responsible for 43%. Retail margins increased the most, going from 16% of total purchases in 1964 to 22% in 2004 (Chart 1.9). Wholesale margins also increased, rising from 4% in 1964 to 9% in 2004. Transportation margins have not increased noticeably over the period, but transportation services provided by producers, wholesalers and retailers of food for their own needs are not included in the figures for transportation margins. There is very little information on this type of transportation.

Since margins are services (rather than goods), their relative increase has contributed to the shift of food-related GDP to the services sector (Chart 1.8). Another cause of this shift is the increased share of imports in food purchases. Imports went from 18% of total food expenditures in 1964 to 25% in 2004. Margins on food imports contribute to Canada's GDP, but the production of the imported food contributes to the GDP of the countries from which food is imported. Imported food does have a small indirect effect on the GDP of Canada's primary and manufacturing sectors, but mostly it affects the services sector.

Food processing and other activities that increase the number of steps between the producer and the consumer add economic value to the product. As the value added to a product increases, the relative contribution of the production of the food to the final value decreases. However, the overall environmental impact increases when intermediate steps are added.

The contribution of the secondary or manufacturing sector to food GDP has remained relatively constant over the 1964 to 2004 time period (Chart 1.8).

Food contributions to employment

The proportion of Canada's workforce involved with the production of food for the Canadian food system has decreased in recent decades (Chart 1.10). In 1964 approximately equal numbers of workers were employed in primary sector food production as were involved in providing transportation, retail and restaurant services for the tertiary sector. By 2004, the relative share of people engaged in producing food relative to those providing food-related services had declined. Increased mechanization, increased use of fertilizers and pesticides, and improved management techniques in recent decades have resulted in fewer people involved in primary sector food production.

People employed in the secondary sector of the food system work in food processing, and in industries that manufacture pesticides, fertilizers, agricultural equipment, packaging and other food-related products. The proportion of people employed in this sector has decreased from 28% to 19% over this time period, whereas its contribution to food GDP only decreased from 35% to 31%.

From 1984 to 2004, the proportion of the total labour force that worked in the service industries increased from 70% to 75%. 36  This trend was even more marked for food system workers, as the proportion of them in the service industries increased from 51% to 69% over this same time period (Chart 1.10). This reflects the fact that a greater diversity of food services are available, including catering and prepared meals to take home. People are spending a greater portion of their money eating outside the home, and imported foods increase activities more in the service (tertiary) sector than in the manufacturing (secondary) sector.



Putting food on the table and preparing food for export puts pressure on water, land, climate and air. All three components of the food system—primary, secondary and tertiary—have environmental impacts.

Some agricultural activities can result in the depletion of soil and water resources—for example, the current rate at which water resources are used and soil is eroded puts pressure on the environment. However, other agricultural management practices can sequester carbon in soils, protect water quality and provide wildlife habitat. Fisheries can alter ocean and freshwater ecosystems through over-fishing and introduction of non-native species. While aquaculture can provide an alternative to traditional fisheries, it contributes to nutrient pollution from fish waste and the depletion of natural fish stocks to feed farmed fish.

Distribution of agricultural land

Appropriate soil and climate conditions are essential for successful farming and most of Canada's land is not suitable for agriculture. According to the Canada Land Inventory, Canada has 45.7 million hectares of dependable land that are suitable for long-term annual crop production, representing about 5% of the total land area of Canada. Most of this dependable land is farmed, with the exception of that which has been paved over or built on. In addition, 72.4 million hectares of land are suitable for tame and native grassland, and may be used for grazing livestock and cutting hay, but are either marginal or unsuitable for annual crop production. 37  In 2006, Canada's total area on farms covered 67.6 million hectares, 38  or 7% of Canada's land base. With a limited supply of land suitable for long-term crop production, increasing the area of cropland can result in a greater reliance on marginal lands.

Canada can be divided into 15 terrestrial ecozones sharing common ecological characteristics (Map 1.1). Ecozones cross administrative boundaries and represent large and generalized ecological units with homogeneous hydrographic, climatic, ecological and topographic characteristics. Ecozones are further broken down into 194 ecoregions, characterized by distinctive regional ecological factors, including climate, physiography, vegetation, soil, water, fauna, and land use (Table 1.4).

Seven of Canada's 15 ecozones have a significant level of agricultural activity: Boreal Shield, Atlantic Maritime, Mixed Wood Plains, Boreal Plains, Prairies, Pacific Maritime and Montane Cordillera. However, farms are not distributed evenly among these ecozones. In 2006, 63% of Canada's farm area was found in the Prairies, 20% in the Boreal Plains and 10% in the Mixed Wood Plains, with the remaining 7% in the other ecozones (Chart 1.11).

The Prairie ecozone (86.6%) and the Mixed Wood Plains ecozone (38.0%) had the greatest proportion of their land in agriculture (Table 1.5; Map 1.2). Canada's growing population is putting pressure on some of Canada's most productive farmland: between 1971 and 2006, population increased by 56% in the Prairie ecozone (Table 1.5). Generally the greatest use of farmland in each ecozone is for field crops. The Montane Cordillera, which has a large focus on beef production, is an exception with the majority of its land in pasture.

Impacts on land

The productive capacity of Canada's farmland is vital to support its population and to contribute to global food production. Proper land management can increase soil fertility, serving to preserve and enhance farmland, but some agricultural practices can have negative impacts.

Wildlife use of agricultural habitat

Agro-ecosystems, which include cropland, grazing land, wetlands, woodlands and natural grasslands, support many species. In fact, over 500 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians are known to use land on Canadian farms. Of the terrestrial vertebrates listed as species at risk in 2004 by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, approximately half were found on farms. Changes in agro-ecosystems can therefore impact biodiversity, and agricultural producers can play a significant role in sustaining biodiversity. 39 

Measuring the impacts of agricultural land-use changes on wildlife is of interest to researchers and policy analysts alike (Text box: National Agri-Environmental Health Analysis and Reporting Program). Suitable wildlife habitat must contain specific components that are critical for wildlife survival—food, water, shelter and space, and also provide for needs such as reproduction, dispersal and migration. One study has shown that from 1981 to 2001, there was a 5% decrease in wildlife habitat capacity on Canada's farms. This decrease was associated with an expansion in cropland from 47% to 54% of total farm area and a decline in species-rich natural pasture from 25% to 23%. The Prairie Provinces saw a small decline in habitat capacity while greater decreases occurred in Eastern Canada. Saskatchewan was the only province in which an increase in habitat capacity occurred between 1981 and 2001. 40 

Many management practices benefit species habitat. Conserving natural land, such as grasslands, wetlands and woodlands, protecting riparian areas (buffer zones) bordering streams and rivers and delayed haying and grazing until after most songbirds and waterfowl have left the nest, are a few examples. 39 

National Agri-Environmental Health Analysis and Reporting Program

In 1993, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) established a set of agri-environmental indicators with the goal of assessing the impacts of agricultural policies on the environment. These indicators determined how environmental conditions within agriculture were changing over time, and how such changes could be explained. The National Agri-Environmental Health Analysis and Reporting Program (NAHARP) builds on this initial work. The program's purpose is to strengthen departmental capacity to develop and continuously enhance agri-environmental indicators and tools to integrate these indicators with policy development. NAHARP uses three complementary approaches: agri-environmental indicators; integrated economic/environmental modeling and forecasting; and agri-environmental valuation.

In addition to agricultural indicators, the following three indicators for the food and beverage industry are under development by NAHARP: energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, water use and effluent generation, and organic solid residues and packaging wastes.

Source(s): Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2007, NAHARP Summary, (accessed October 9, 2008).


Tillage is the preparation of soil for planting or seeding by plowing and cultivating. Conventional tillage incorporates or buries most of the previous year's crop residue into the soil. Conservation tillage retains most of the crop residue on the surface and involves minimal tillage. No-till involves direct seeding into crop residue, avoiding any mechanical tillage of the soil. 41 

The type of tillage used depends on specific conditions such as climate, soil and crop type. Cereal grains, oil seeds and beans are easily grown using conservation or no-till practices. Potatoes, however, are generally grown using conventional tillage. While conventional tillage can increase porosity and loosen soil, it breaks up soil structure, making it more subject to compaction, which reduces water infiltration, air exchange and root penetration. It also leaves soil more vulnerable to wind and water erosion and accelerates the decomposition of organic matter. Reduced tillage conserves moisture, soil structure and organic matter, and minimizes the risk of erosion. No-till seeding involves fewer passes with machinery through fields, resulting in fuel and labour savings.

In Canada, land prepared for seeding using conventional tillage decreased from 69% in 1991 to 28% in 2006 (Table 1.6). Land prepared for seeding using conservation tillage remained relatively stable, rising slightly from 24% to 26% and no-till increased from 6% to 46%. No-till practices were most common in the Prairie ecozone, where 53% of the land prepared for seeding was prepared using no-till practices in 2006, up from 8% in 1991.

Reduced tillage results in economic and environmental benefits. Total fuel expenses for farmers that used no-till seeding, on average, were $39/ha seeded. Farmers that used conventional tillage however, on average, spent $110/ha seeded on fuel. 42  This reduction in fuel use also reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Soil erosion

Soil erosion, the movement of soil from one area to another, removes nutrient rich topsoil and contributes to the breakdown of soil structure, affecting soil fertility and the movement of water into and from the soil surface. Erosion can also have 'off-site' impacts on the environment, including transport and deposit of soil particles to new locations and the release of nutrients, pesticides, pathogens and toxins. 43  In addition, aquatic habitats are affected by sedimentation. 44 

Soil erosion can occur by wind and water action, which can be influenced by agricultural activities such as tillage. Water-induced soil erosion is usually the result of rainfall and snowmelt surface run-off events. In addition to sedimentation of streams, rivers and lakes, the eroded soil can carry crop nutrients, pesticides and bacteria, which affect water quality and reduce habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms. According to the National Agri-Environmental Health Analysis and Reporting Program report, 86% of cropland had a very low risk of water erosion in 2001. The risk declined in most provinces between 1981 and 2001, with a decrease of 8% nationally. Practices that help control water erosion include: using reduced tillage and managing crop residues; planting row crops across the slope or following the land's contours; strip cropping; winter cover cropping where soils are at risk of erosion by winter run-off; and including forages such as hay and alfalfa in crop rotations. 43 

The risk of wind-induced soil erosion is greatest in the dry Prairie Provinces where expanses of cultivated land have little protection from the wind. The risk of wind erosion decreased 40% between 1981 and 2001, with the proportion of land in the low to very low risk classes increasing from 84% in 1981 to 92% in 2001. The risk of wind erosion in the Prairies declined steadily between 1981 and 2001 because of changes in cropping systems and tillage practices. 43  The most notable changes include a 50% reduction in the amount of summerfallow—land left unsown to conserve moisture in the soil; a doubling of forage area; and a dramatic increase in reduced-tillage systems.

Impacts on water

Technologies involving mechanization, genetics, nutrient science and irrigation have fostered increases in crop and livestock production. Likewise, technologies used in fisheries and aquaculture have also resulted in increased yields. However, use of some of these technologies can impact water quality and availability. In addition, food manufacturing is dependent on water. In 2005, total water intake by Canadian manufacturing industries was 7,779 million cubic metres. Food industries accounted for 17.6%, or 1,367 million cubic metres, of this water. 45 

Nutrients and pesticides

Commercial fertilizers and livestock manure provide nutrients essential to plant growth, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. When applied under ideal conditions and at optimum rates, fertilizers and manure have minimal water quality impacts. However, care must be taken to ensure that they are applied correctly to minimize runoff and leaching, which typically occur during episodes of intense rainfall and spring snowmelt. 32 

When applied improperly, nutrients in fertilizer and manure can run off into surface water bodies and leach into groundwater. Nitrogen and phosphorus can encourage excessive aquatic plant growth. When these plants die and decompose, dissolved oxygen is removed from the water—a process known as eutrophication—making it uninhabitable for fish and other forms of aquatic life. 46 

Between 1971 and 2006, there was an increase in the amount of fertilized area in each of the seven ecozones with significant agricultural activity (Table 1.7). The greatest increases were observed in the Prairies ecozone (381%) and the Montane Cordillera ecozone (201%).

Livestock manure is rich in nutrients and organic matter, making it a valuable fertilizer for crop production. It can however also be a source of odours and pathogens. 47  Proper management can make the difference between a valuable resource and a pollutant.

In 2006, livestock produced 168 million tonnes of manure (Table 1.8), a 12% increase since 1981. 48  Manure production was concentrated in central and southern Alberta, located in the Prairies ecozone, as well as in south-western Ontario, and south-eastern Quebec, both located in the Mixed Wood Plains ecozone. Beef cattle were responsible for the largest proportion of manure produced in Alberta, whereas a wide range of animals, including poultry, beef cattle, milk cows and pigs, contributed to manure production in Ontario and Quebec. 49 

This manure contained 1 million tonnes of nitrogen, 279 thousand tonnes of phosphorus and 602 thousand tonnes of potassium. The Pacific Maritime ecozone had the highest nutrient production from manure per farm area (Table 1.8) due to substantial poultry, egg and dairy production relative to the amount of farmland in the region. However, not all of this manure is spread in the ecozone—it can be transported to other farms or dried and bagged for sale. 50  The total quantity of manure alone is not an indication of its environmental impact as each type of livestock manure has specific nutrient and odour characteristics.

Considerable effort is required to handle such a large volume of manure. Collecting, transporting and spreading all require time and energy. Manure can be used in place of chemical fertilizers, reducing costs. However, care must be taken to avoid environmental impacts. Several provinces have strict legislation with regards to manure handling and nutrient management. Soil and manure nutrient testing prior to application is the best way to determine the right amount to apply since different crops have different nutrient demands.

Pesticides are applied to agricultural crops to control weeds, insects and other pests. While pesticides can help maintain crop yields and quality, they also have the potential to contaminate water through runoff and infiltration into groundwater. In 2005, the herbicide application area on farms was 190% higher compared to 1970. In 2005, the largest land area with herbicide application was found in Saskatchewan, followed by Alberta and Manitoba (Chart 1.12). Herbicide use has allowed a move to reduced summerfallow and increased no-till planting with the associated environmental benefits of that practice. Between 1971 and 2006, farmers in the Boreal Plains and Prairies ecozones had the greatest increase in expenditures per land area on chemical products (Table 1.9).

Farmers are also using a number of non-chemical alternative methods of pest control. In 2006, the most common method was rotating crops, accounting for 33% of all alternative methods of pest control across Canada. Other common methods include tillage (16%) and use of pest resistant plants (13%). 51 

Water use

Water is essential to crop and livestock production. In 2001, agricultural water use to irrigate crops, water livestock, spray pesticides and wash machinery in Canada was estimated at 4.8 billion cubic metres. 52  The majority (92%) of this water was used for irrigation. Different climate conditions and crop requirements mean that agricultural water use varies from one region to another. Agricultural water use in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia accounted for 92% of the national total in 2001.

Seven percent of Canadian farms reported irrigation in 2005. Of the total land area irrigated in Canada in 2005, 64% was in Alberta and an additional 14% was in British Columbia. 27  In 2007, 91% of Canadian irrigators reported using one or more practices to conserve water and energy. 53  Of farmers that were known to irrigate, 60% used water to clean farm buildings or equipment, and 54% used water to spray pesticides or fertilizers (Table 1.10).

Water consumption by industry, calculated as water intake minus water discharge, provides an indication of the amount of water lost during production, most commonly through the incorporation of water into the products or through evaporation. In 2005, water consumption for manufacturing industries was estimated at 1,051.1 million cubic metres or 13.5% of the total water intake of 7,778.9 million cubic metres. 54  Food industries were the largest consumers of water, consuming 272.7 million cubic metres or 25.9% of the total. 45 

Commercial fisheries

Commercial fisheries face several environmental issues, including overfishing, bycatch and habitat damage. Overexploitation became an increasing concern in the late 1980s. In the Atlantic provinces, over-fishing caused many groundfish stocks to decline severely and the federal government imposed moratoria on cod and other fisheries. Similarly, on the West Coast a marked decline in salmon stocks was noted beginning in 1995. The decline in salmon landings has been attributed in part to habitat destruction stemming from logging activities, road construction, industrial pollution, agricultural run-off and urbanization. 32 

In addition to a reduction in overall biomass of commercially exploited fish, there has been a decrease in the size structure of several species. 55  Larger, more valuable fish are targeted by fishing activities, reducing the average size of fish in the population. As a result, reproductive capacity is affected because smaller fish produce fewer eggs. 56 , 57 

Bycatch, the capture of non-target species while fishing, can include fish that are unmarketable, undersized or endangered. It is estimated that the trawl fisheries of the Scotian Shelf catch 50 to 400 species in addition to targeted species. 55  Most bycatch is discarded. The type of fishing gear used can affect the likelihood and amount of bycatch and some gear can cause habitat damage. For example, trawling and dredging cause changes in ocean floor communities and reduce the productivity of their habitats. 57 , 55 


Aquaculture is the farming of fish, shellfish, and other aquatic animals or plants, in fresh or salt water. These products can be grown inland in freshwater facilities, ponds, freshwater lakes and bays, or in the open ocean. 58  As demand for seafood increases, the use of aquaculture as a complement to traditional fisheries may remove pressure from wild stocks. Aquaculture contributes a growing proportion of fish production, rising from 7% in 1996 to 14% in 2007 (by weight). 59  There is concern however about the environmental impacts of aquaculture.

Fish wastes from aquaculture can be problematic if the receiving waters are unable to assimilate them and become polluted as a result. Organic wastes include nitrates and phosphates. These wastes can impact coastal ecosystems and habitats 60  by stimulating local algal blooms, resulting in waters with inadequate oxygen. They can also cause sedimentation under net pens. 61 

Aquaculture also has the potential to impact aquatic ecosystem biodiversity. Some farmed fish are fed a diet derived from wild fish stocks and they can spread pathogens to native populations. Fish may escape from aquaculture pens to the wild where they can prey on native fish species and compete for limited resources. 61 

Inland, closed-system farms for species such as rainbow trout, tilapia, channel catfish, sturgeon and Arctic char may have fewer environmental impacts than open-ocean farms or pens in bays and inlets. These inland systems are not in contact with wild fish populations and therefore avoid harm through habitat damage and degradation, pollution and disease outbreaks. 62 

Impacts on climate

GHG emissions

According to the National Inventory Report 1990-2006, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture, not including energy use, increased 12.4 Mt, or 25%, between 1990 and 2006 (Table 1.11). Agriculture contributed 62 Mt or 8.6% of Canada's total GHG emissions in 2006. 63  Agricultural emissions related to the use of fossil fuels for energy—including driving tractors and heating and drying grain—are reported under energy production and use. In 2006, the net storage of GHGs in cropland was 1.4 Mt. The continued adoption of no-till and reduced tillage practices, and the reduction of summerfallow, have resulted in a trend of increasing removals of GHGs to cultivated soils. 63 

In 2006, 56% of the GHG emissions from agriculture were from nitrous oxide (N2O) and 44% were from methane (CH4). 63  Both N2O and CH4 are stronger GHGs than carbon dioxide (CO2). The emission sources from the agricultural sector include livestock digestive processes (CH4), manure (N2O and CH4), fertilizers (N2O) and crop production (N2O). Contributing factors to the increase in GHG emissions from the agricultural sector include the expansion of the beef cattle and swine industries, and increases in the use of nitrogen fertilizers. 63 

While the National Inventory Report tracks the amount of GHG emitted, it is also possible to compare GHG emission intensities for various industries. 64  For example, crop and animal production emitted 3.1 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions per thousand current dollars of production (T CO2 eq/$1000) in 2004.

GHGs are also emitted during food-related manufacturing. With emissions of 4.0 T CO2 eq/$1000, Pesticides, fertilizer and other agricultural chemical manufacturing industry had the highest emission intensity of the 56 secondary industries. Seven of the 12 food or beverage manufacturing industries ranked in the top 20: Meat product manufacturing was fifth at 1.9 T CO2 eq/$1000 and Dairy product manufacturing was seventh with emissions of 1.7 T CO2 eq/$1000. Overall, emissions intensity has declined since 1990—49 of the 56 industries in this sector decreased their GHG emission intensity in 2004 relative to 1990 levels. 65 

Impacts on air

Criteria air contaminants (CACs) are a group of pollutants that cause smog, acid rain and other environmental problems. Agriculture is a significant source of two CACs—ammonia (NH3) and particulate matter (PM). Ammonia is a gas that is irritating to the eyes, nose and throat when inhaled in low concentrations. It also interacts with sulfates and nitrates to form secondary fine particulate matter (PM2.5) which can have harmful effects on both human health and the environment. 66 

Agriculture is the main source of atmospheric NH3 emissions. In 2006, agriculture was responsible for 90% of total ammonia emissions in Canada. 67  These emissions are attributed to both livestock and poultry waste management and to pesticide and fertilizer application.

Particulate matter consists of airborne particles in liquid or solid form. Particulate matter has been linked to a number of cardiac and respiratory diseases and to various forms of heart disease. It can also have adverse effects on vegetation and structures, and contribute to reduced visibility and poor air quality. 68  In 2006, agriculture was the third largest source of particulate matter emissions. It was responsible for 12% of total emissions, following construction operations (20%) and dust from roads (62%). 67 



Food is intertwined with culture, traditions and family. Canada's diverse food choices reflect history and immigration patterns. Canadians have embraced both traditional foods such as salmon, roast beef and tourtière to foods introduced more recently, including pizza, chow mein, perogies, curries and pita.

The Canadian diet has changed considerably from the country's early history when the majority of food needs were met locally. Canadians are confronted by an ever-increasing variety of foods. There are now dozens of breakfast cereals to choose from and fresh fruits and vegetables that were once considered exotic are now available throughout the year. 69  For example, between 1960 and 2007 the total fruit available per person increased from 88.3 kg to 137.4 kg. Mangoes and guavas were first recorded as contributing to this total in 1980, and by 2007 they contributed 1.3 kg per person per year. 70 

Food is also important from an employment perspective—it affects not only the farmers and fishers who produce it, but also those involved in transporting, warehousing and selling, and those involved in preparing and serving it.

The impact of human activities on the environment is complex. In an effort to facilitate communication of these impacts, use of concepts of virtual or embedded resources is increasing (Text box: Embedded energy and virtual water). While these measures are approximations, the fact that they provide a common measure of the relative environmental cost of activities is informative.

All the processes involved in food production, manufacturing, distribution, and retailing require energy: most result in the emission of greenhouse gases, other pollution and waste. In 2006, the food industry spent $317.9 million in operating expenses for environmental protection, with an additional $123.8 million on capital expenditures. Most of these funds were dedicated to waste management and sewerage services, pollution abatement and control processes and pollution prevention processes. 71 

Embedded energy and virtual water

Embedded energy refers to the quantity of energy that is needed to produce and deliver a product, or a service, to its consumer. It is sometimes also referred to as 'virtual' or 'hidden' energy. Similarly, virtual water refers to the water used in the production of a good or a service, and is the sum of the water used in the various steps of the production chain.

The concept of virtual or embedded resources helps us become conscious of how much water and energy is needed to produce goods and to provide services, and it offers insight into the environmental impact of these activities. Furthermore, this information is applicable when goods and services are traded between countries that may have different resource availabilities.

What is on the Canadian table?

The Canada Food Guide recommends the number of food servings Canadians should eat each day depending on age and sex. 72  For example, women aged 19 to 50 should have 7 to 8 servings of vegetables and fruit, 6 to 7 servings of grain products, 2 servings of milk and alternatives, and 2 servings of meat and alternatives on a daily basis.

Since 1976, the average number of calories available per person from Canada's food supply has increased 9% from 3,118 kcal to 3,384 kcal (Chart 1.13). 8 

Not all this food is eaten—wastage occurs from spoilage and other losses in stores, in restaurants and in the home. In 2007, loss of solid food was estimated at over 6.0 million tonnes between retail level and the plate—the equivalent of 183 kg per person. 7 , 9  Another 2.8 billion litres of liquids including milk and milk products, coffee, tea, pop and juices were also wasted. These losses do not include losses at the production level or during food processing.

Waste food can be composted, but often ends up as landfill or down the drain. Food waste also represents a waste of other resources, as considerable water, energy, and greenhouse gas emissions are involved in producing, transporting, and preparing food.

Over 70% of the food Canadians buy is produced domestically, including 80% of meat and dairy products and 76% of breads and cereals. Imports account for 40% of all fish and fruit and vegetables. 5 

In 2007, about $24 billion worth of food was imported into Canada from 198 different countries. 6  The top ten countries provided 80% of the value of food imports: countries outside of North America provided 40% (Table 1.12).

Canadians spend less proportionately on food today than they did in the past. In 1913, in 60 cities, staple foods made up more than half a family's weekly budget. 73  Since then, food has become relatively less expensive, and spending on other goods and services has increased. In 1961, spending on food, including restaurant meals and alcoholic beverages made up 28% of total consumer spending in Canada. By 2007, this figure had declined to 17% (Chart 1.1).

Canadians spent $75 billion on food and non-alcoholic beverages from stores in 2007. The largest shares were spent on meat and fish products and fruits and vegetables (16% each). Bread and cereals and dairy products (including eggs) were next at 12% each. 5  Spending on beer, wine and liquor bought from stores totalled $17 billion.

Buying organic food is becoming a popular practice. In 2007, 45% of households reported that they often or sometimes bought organic food products, and 5% bought organic food all of the time. 74  Forty-eight percent of households rarely or never bought organic.

Organic food products are grown or produced using organic production methods. While there are many requirements that must be followed, in general organic agriculture avoids the use of chemical fertilizers, synthetic pesticides and veterinary drugs, genetically modified organisms and certain food processing and preservation substances. 75  Organic producers are also required to keep strict records to document organic integrity. Canada's organic principles emphasize the importance of protecting the environment, minimizing soil degradation, erosion and pollution, optimizing biological productivity, and ensuring the humane treatment of animals.

Over 15,500 farms, or 6.8% of all farms in Canada, produced organically grown food products in 2006. The highest proportion was found in British Columbia, where 16.3% produced food using organic methods (Table 1.13). Not all farms were certified organic—meaning that their organic production methods and products were verified by a certification body. Just over 3,500 farms were fully certified in 2006 and 640 farms were making the transition to full organic certification.

Certain provinces require goods carrying the label 'organic' to be certified. The new national Organic Products Regulations, which come into force June 30, 2009, require that all organic products imported, exported or sold in other provinces be certified by an accredited certification body. While only farms that are certified will be able to use the term 'organic,' other farmers may choose to follow some or all of the organic principles for stewardship or business reasons, and must follow an array of regulations safeguarding health, the environment and animal welfare.

Eating out in restaurants or calling for take-out is a regular social activity for many. In 2007, Canadians spent $41 billion on restaurant meals and $9 billion on alcoholic beverages in licensed establishments, the equivalent of over $1,500 per person. 76  In 2007, 95% of households bought food from restaurants. 77 

Cooking at home and eating out in restaurants are not highly polluting activities. However, the broader impacts of these activities, resulting from energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, food waste and other garbage which must be disposed of, should be recognized.

Energy and greenhouse gas emissions involved in the production of food for households

From 1990 to 2003, household activities led directly or indirectly to between 45% and 50% of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced in Canada each year. About one-third of household emissions resulted directly from motor fuel use and fuel use in the home. The other two-thirds came indirectly from the production of the goods and services that households purchased. 78 

In 2003, Canadians spent $63.5 billion on food and non-alcoholic beverages purchased from stores. 4  These purchases resulted in production of 45,687 kilotonnes of greenhouse gases, equivalent to 14% of all the direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions attributable to households. 79 

Numerous steps are required to put food on the table, and many of these steps require energy and result in GHG emissions. Fuel is used to till land and sow crops; fertilizers and pesticides are manufactured and applied, food is harvested and shipped to processing plants, and electricity is used to wash and package food.

The analysis presented in this section makes use of data from the national Input-Output tables (Text box: Input-output tables at Statistics Canada). Analysis done with these tables permits calculation of energy use and GHG emissions related to any of 719 categories of goods and services, including food products. The results include the energy use and GHG emissions associated with foreign production of imported food products (Text box: A note on methodology).

Almost one quarter of all food-related GHG emissions in 2003 were attributable to the production of fresh and frozen meat, while fish products contributed the least (2%). Prepared foods and dairy and eggs each contributed about 20% to food-related GHG emissions in 2003 (Chart 1.14). Significant sources of GHG emissions from food production include the use of fertilizers (N2O), manure management (N2O and CH4), and livestock digestive processes (CH4).

Looking at the amount of energy required to produce food shows another dimension of the environmental impact of the food system (Chart 1.15). Energy use is more evenly distributed across the food categories than GHG emissions, but the top three categories are the same. More energy was used in the production of prepared foods than other food groups (19%), reflecting the energy inputs required for processing these foods. Dairy and eggs accounted for 18% of the energy use and fresh and frozen meat accounted for 14%.

In 2003, spending on seven individual commodities accounted for 40% of GHG emissions and 31% of total energy use related to food (Table 1.14). Beef and cheese ranked first and second for percent contributions to both total GHG emissions and total energy use. While similar amounts of energy were used to produce these foods in 2003, overall spending on beef resulted in more than double the GHG emissions.

A note on methodology

The data used in the section, 'Energy and greenhouse gas emissions' involved in the production of food for households' are derived from Statistics Canada's Material and Energy Flow Accounts (MEFA). These accounts integrate environmental data with the economic data from Canada's System of National Accounts (CSNA). The CSNA is the source of a number of Statistics Canada's most important indicators of economic activity, including gross domestic product (GDP). One of the main components of the CSNA are the Input-Output (I/O) accounts which produce highly detailed production and consumption statistics for 303 industries, 719 goods and services and 170 categories of final demand.

The MEFA follow the I/O accounting framework to track the use of energy and the generation of emissions by each industry and final demand sector. The flows are linked through the common industrial and commodity classification of the I/O tables. This linkage allows analysis of the interplay between economic activity and greenhouse gas emissions.

The accounts used for this analysis only include the three main greenhouse gases, namely carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, and do not include emissions from the decomposition or incineration of waste.

Emissions factors from Environment Canada are applied to Statistics Canada's energy use account data, which are also based on the CSNA industry and commodity frameworks. The energy use data come mainly from Statistics Canada's Industrial Consumption of Energy Survey, transportation surveys, the Report on Energy Supply-Demand in Canada and Natural Resources Canada's Census of Mines.

Direct household emissions are the greenhouse gases that are emitted when people drive their vehicles for personal use and use fossil fuels to heat their homes.

Indirect household emissions are the greenhouse gases that are emitted when industries produce the goods and services that people purchase for household use.


Date modified: