Section 1: Introduction

Land, soil, water and climate are important elements of ecological infrastructure that provide the foundation for agricultural activity in Canada. In some areas of the country, agriculture occupies a large proportion of the landscape and particularly in the Prairies and parts of southern Ontario it can be the dominant land use. Not all land is suitable for agriculture, however. In addition, much of Canada’s farmland is located in areas where there are many other competing uses for the land.

Although Canada’s cities, towns and roads—its built-up areas—cover only 0.1% of the country’s landscape, development pressures can result in the loss of prime agricultural land and the loss of many valuable ecosystem services and benefits that agricultural ecosystems 1  provide to society, from habitat for wildlife, to water flow regulation and space for recreational activities and aesthetic enjoyment.

Agriculture contributes to the lives of Canadians across the country, providing food, work and helping maintain the connection between people and land. Canadian agriculture also benefits people around the world.

At the same time, it is important to recognize the potential environmental impacts resulting from agricultural activities—the agricultural industry is the largest water consumer in the country, 2  nutrients from fertilizer and manure can impact water quality 3  and some farm activities can result in emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases. 4 , 5  Many farmers have adopted specific management practices to prevent or minimize these impacts and restore or improve ecosystem services.

The Ecosystem Goods and Services conceptual framework (Figure 1.1) illustrates the structure of this study. It covers: the ecological infrastructure supporting agricultural activity (Section 2), ecosystem goods and services from agriculture (Section 3), the main beneficiaries of these goods and services (Section 4) and the environmental impacts and management activities associated with agriculture (Section 5). Section 6 provides an example to illustrate how agricultural information from the four quadrants can be integrated into a system of environmental accounts that follow international guidelines being developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Section 7 concludes with a short listing of areas requiring further research. A glossary of terms used in the publication is available in Appendix B.

Figure 1.1: Ecosystem Goods and Services conceptual framework for agriculture

The annual Human Activity and the Environment publications bring together data from many sources to present a statistical portrait of Canada’s environment, with special emphasis on human activity and its relationship to natural systems—air, water, soil, plants and animals. Each issue provides accessible and relevant information on an environmental issue of concern to Canadians.

The 2014 article “Agriculture in Canada” gathers together a variety of statistics describing agriculture from the perspective of ecosystem goods and services (see Textbox 1).

Note to readers

Many of the statistics in this report are presented using geographical classifications that focus on ecological and hydrographical characteristics of the earth’s surface, rather than administrative boundaries such as provinces and municipalities.

The Ecological Framework of Canada divides the country into 15 terrestrial ecozones that share common ecological characteristics, such as climate, physiography, vegetation, soil, water, fauna and land use (Map 1, Appendix H, in Statistics Canada, 2013, “Measuring ecosystem goods and services in Canada,” Human Activity and the Environment, Catalogue no. 16-201-X). Ecozones can be further broken down into 53 ecoprovinces, 194 ecoregions and 1,021 ecodistricts, each characterized by greater levels of detail on regional ecological characteristics. According to data from the Census of Agriculture, farms are located in 8 of Canada’s 15 ecozones.

Statistics Canada’s drainage region classification divides the country according to water flows into five ocean drainage areas: the Pacific Ocean, the Arctic Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, Hudson Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. These areas can be further subdivided into 25 drainage regions (Map 1.2 in Statistics Canada, 2010, “Freshwater supply and demand in Canada,” Human Activity and the Environment, Catalogue no. 16-201-X), which cover all the land and interior freshwater lakes and rivers across the country. Drainage regions are based on an aggregation of 974 sub-sub-drainage areas. 6  Farms can be found in 22 of the 25 drainage regions across the country.

Textbox 1: What are ecosystem goods and services?

Ecosystems are communities of interacting organisms—living species such as plants, animals and microorganisms—and their physical environment that function together as a unit. Ecosystems produce a wide variety of goods and services from which people benefit, which are collectively known as ecosystem goods and services (EGS). For an in-depth report on ecosystem accounting and valuation, please see Statistics Canada, 2013, “Measuring ecosystem goods and services in Canada,” Human Activity and the Environment, Catalogue no. 16-201-X.

For example, plants and trees in forest ecosystems produce clean air, while wetlands filter and control the flow of water, providing clean water and providing flood protection. Agricultural ecosystems contribute to the production of food, through the provision of fertile soil, pollination and pest regulation services with additional inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, energy and labour by farmers. These different ecosystems can also provide recreational and aesthetic benefits, among others.

EGS can be classified into provisioning, regulating and cultural services.

  1. Provisioning services produce the goods upon which people rely, including crops, livestock, fish or timber.
  1. Regulating services such as climate, water flow, and air quality regulation result from the capacity of ecosystems to control climatic, hydrological and bio-chemical cycles, as well as biological processes.
  1. Cultural services provide people with psychological, intellectual and symbolic benefits through recreation, knowledge development, relaxation, and spiritual reflection.

An additional category termed ‘supporting services’ is sometimes recognized to address the fact that many underlying ecosystem functions and processes are required to produce all other ecosystem services. These services are considered to be intermediate outputs that flow within and between ecosystems, and which contribute to the production of final ecosystem outputs that benefit people.

Different types of ecosystems provide different types of EGS—cropland, for example might produce quite a different array and amount of EGS than forests or wetlands. An ecosystem’s capacity to produce EGS can be affected, both positively and negatively, by human activity. 7 

What you should know about this study

This report makes extensive use of data from the following five sources:

Census of Agriculture: The Census of Agriculture collects a wide range of data on the agriculture industry such as number of farms and farm operators, farm area, business operating arrangements, land management practices, livestock and crop inventories, operating expenses and receipts, farm capital and farm machinery and equipment. These data provide a comprehensive picture of the agriculture industry across Canada every five years at the national, provincial and sub-provincial levels. For more information see Statistics Canada, 2012, About the Census of Agriculture,

Farm Environmental Management Survey: The 2011 Farm Environmental Management Survey was conducted to gather information about farming practices on Canadian crop and livestock operations. The survey focused on information related to manure spreading, pesticide application, grazing and the implementation of environmental farm plans over the 2011 calendar year. For more information, see Statistics Canada, 2012, Farm Environmental Management Survey (FEMS),

Households and the Environment Survey: The Households and the Environment Survey measures the environmental practices and behaviours of Canadian households that relate to the condition of our air, water and soils. The survey was also designed to collect data to develop and improve three key environmental indicators: air quality, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions. For more information see Statistics Canada, 2014, Households and the Environment Survey (HES),

Interpolated Census of Agriculture: Since Statistics Canada’s Standard Geographical Classification units (such as census metropolitan areas) generally do not correspond with biophysical units (such as ecological regions or drainage areas), Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), in collaboration with Statistic Canada's Agriculture Division, have developed a process for assigning Census of Agriculture data to environmental geographies such as drainage areas. For more information see Government of Canada, 2013, Interpolated Census of Agriculture,

Agricultural Water Survey: This survey is conducted to gather information on irrigation water use, irrigation methods and practices, and sources and quality of water used for agricultural purposes on Canadian farms. The results help farm operators, governments and the Canadian public gain a better understanding of the demand for water and how it is used on Canadian farms. For more information see Statistics Canada, 2012, Agricultural Water Survey (AWS),

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