Section 2: Elements of ecological infrastructure

Elements of ecological infrastructure, such as soil, water, climate, and living organisms are required for successful agriculture. The interactions of these structures within and across ecosystems result in ecosystem processes and functions, such as photosynthesis and nutrient cycling that are vital for crop production. This section examines elements of the ecological infrastructure required for productive agriculture to take place, with a focus on the availability of suitable farmland. See Textbox 2 for more information on climate, water and soil.

Textbox 2: Climate, water and soil

Climate, water and soil are important factors affecting where different types of agriculture can be successful. Crops require sunlight, warm temperatures, and an adequate supply of water from precipitation or irrigation during the growing season.

Changes in average temperature, growing season length and the amount, intensity and timing of precipitation due to climate change are occurring 1  and are expected to affect agricultural practices. In the future, suitable conditions may allow agricultural activities to expand northward 2  and crop varieties may change; however, crops may also suffer from heat stress, drought, and changes in pest populations, while increased rainfall intensity and flood events could have the potential to cause soil erosion and loss of soil nutrients. 3 

In Canada, light and temperature can be limiting factors affecting crop growth. Growing degree days—a measure of the availability of heat for plant growth—are used in agriculture to track temperature accumulation. Growing degree days are calculated on a daily basis as the difference between the daily mean temperature and a reference temperature of 5 degrees Celsius. The number of degree days varies across the country from less than 250 in locations in the North to more than 2,000 in southern locations found in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. 4  Longer growing seasons combined with warmer temperatures during the growing season have resulted in increases in growing degree days, mainly in the southern part of the country. 5  While Canada has abundant renewable freshwater supplies—3,472 km3 of average annual water yield—water renewal in some areas of the country is more limited; 0.5 km3 in the Missouri drainage region and 4.2 km3 in the Okanagan–Similkameen drainage region. 6  Runoff ranges from less than 50 mm in the southern Prairies to over 1,540 mm in the Pacific Coastal drainage region. The timing of water availability also matters, since peak demand for water often coincides with periods when the water yield is low. Canada’s water yield has decreased on average 8.5% from 1971 to 2004. 7 

Soil quality comprises many characteristics, some of which vary with agricultural practices (e.g., pH, organic content, nutrients) and others which are largely unalterable (e.g., topography, internal drainage, soil texture). 8  Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, as well as a variety of other macro and micronutrients are needed for plant growth, but are not always available from the soil, requiring fertilization.

Worldwide, use of nitrogen fertilizer increased 30%, while use of phosphate fertilizer increased 19% from 2002 to 2011. 9  Nitrogen is abundantly available in the atmosphere and can be recovered to produce synthetic fertilizer through the Haber-Bosch process. 10  Other sources of nitrogen include nitrogen fixation from symbiotic interactions 11  between bacteria and legumes and the use of animal manures. Nearly all phosphorus fertilizer, however, is produced from phosphate rock, a non-renewable resource that is becoming increasingly scarce. 12 

Farmland in Canada

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than a third of total land area worldwide is used for agriculture (Table 2.1). Further, an estimated 28% of this agricultural area is arable—considered suitable for crop production. Arable land is an important element of ecological infrastructure supporting agriculture.

Despite the fact that arable land accounts for a small percentage of the country’s total land area, Canada ranks seventh in the world for arable land. About 7% of the total land area of Canada is used for agriculture, more than two-thirds of which is arable land. Statistics Canada’s agricultural ecumene identifies the areas of the country where agricultural activity is located (Map 2.1). 13 

Farm area in Canada declined (-6%) from 68.7 million hectares in 1971 to 64.8 million hectares in 2011 (Chart 2.1). The loss of 3.9 million hectares of farm area is equal to an area approximately the size of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The number of farms in Canada, meanwhile, dropped 44% from 366,110 farms to 205,730 farms. As a result, the average farm has increased in size from 188 hectares to 315 hectares.

In 2011, 62% (40.1 million hectares) of Canada’s total farm area was located in the Prairies ecozone, 14  20% (12.9 million hectares) was found in the Boreal Plains, 10% (6.2 million hectares) in the Mixed Wood Plains, 3% in both the Montane Cordillera (1.7 million hectares) and Atlantic Maritime (2.1 million hectares), 2% in the Boreal Shield (1.4 million hectares) and very small percentages in both the Taiga Plains and Pacific Maritime ecozones (Chart 2.2 and Table 2.2).

The largest decreases in farm area from 1971 to 2011 occurred in the Mixed Wood Plains (-1.3 million hectares), Prairies (-1.3 million hectares) and Atlantic Maritime ecozones (-732,826 hectares). The largest increase in farm area occurred in the Boreal Plains (+627,783 hectares). In terms of percent change though, the Montane Cordillera saw a noteworthy 41% increase over this period.

Agricultural activity was most heavily concentrated in the Prairies ecozone in 2011, with 86% of the total ecozone area being farmed (Table 2.2). In comparison, 37% of the Mixed Wood Plains and 17% of the Boreal Plains ecozones were farmed. At the ecodistrict level, farms occupy more than 75% of the total land area for many ecodistricts in the Prairies ecozone, as well as some ecodistricts in the Mixed Wood Plains and Boreal Plains ecozones (Map 2.2). See Textbox 3 for more information on agriculture in the Prairies and Mixed Wood Plains.

Textbox 3: Agricultural profile of the Prairies and Mixed Wood Plains ecozones

The Prairies and Mixed Wood Plains ecozones are two important farming areas in Canada. Together they accounted for almost two-thirds of farms and almost three-quarters of farm area in Canada in 2011.


The Prairies ecozone stretches from the Rocky Mountains in Alberta to the Red River valley in Manitoba, covering the southern third of the Prairie provinces. In 2011, 33% of all farms in Canada were located in the Prairies ecozone. Farm area made up 86% of the total ecozone area at 40.1 million hectares. Cropland—land producing field crops, hay, fruit, vegetables, sod and nursery crops—accounted for more than half of total farm area.

Wheat, canola and beef are the foundation of farming in the Prairies ecozone. In 2011, farms in this ecozone accounted for 80% of the area of wheat, 81% of the area of canola and 59% of the inventory of beef cattle in Canada. Herbicides were applied to 18.3 million hectares of farmland in the ecozone, insecticides to 1.8 million hectares and fungicides to 4.0 million hectares in 2010. Livestock in this ecozone produced over 68 million tonnes of manure, almost half of the national total in 2011.

Mixed Wood Plains

The Mixed Wood Plains ecozone is bounded by three Great Lakes—Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and Lake Huron—in the south and extends along the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City. This is the smallest Canadian ecozone.

In 2011, 31% of all farms in Canada were located in the Mixed Wood Plains ecozone. Farm area made up 37% of the ecozone area at 6.2 million hectares. Cropland accounted for close to three-quarters of total farm area.

There are many different types of farms in the Mixed Wood Plains ecozone. Farms in this ecozone accounted for 91% of the grain corn and 71% of the soy beans seeded in the country, and accounted for more than half of the Canadian inventories of dairy cattle, poultry and pigs in 2011. Herbicides were applied to 3.1 million hectares of farmland in the ecozone, insecticides to 539,004 hectares and fungicides to 446,581 hectares in 2010. Livestock produced almost 36.1 million tonnes of manure in 2011.

Source(s): Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Statistics Canada, special tabulation, Census of Agriculture, Census Geographic Component Base 2011.

In 2011, farm area per capita was highest in the Boreal Plains (14,971 hectares/1,000 people) and the Prairies (8,116 hectares/1,000 people) (Table 2.2), where much of agricultural production focused on small grains and oilseeds for export. Farm area per capita dropped by 43% in the Prairies and by 48% in the Mixed Wood Plains ecozones from 1971 to 2011.

Dependable agricultural land

Not all land is suitable for agriculture–crop production depends on the right combination of soil, climate, water and other factors. In Canada, land has been classified into seven classes according to its suitability for agriculture. 15 

Class 1 land has no significant limitations for crop production, while Class 2 and 3 lands have moderate or moderately severe limitations that restrict the range of crops or require conservation practices. Together, these three categories indicate lands that are suitable for long term cultivation, 16  and have been termed ‘dependable agricultural land.' 17  Lands in classes 4 to 6 have important limitations for crops and/or forage crops, while land in Class 7 is not suitable for cropping or permanent pasture.

Canada has over 50.5 million hectares of dependable (Class 1 to 3) agricultural land (Table 2.3). Most of this dependable agricultural land is found in the Prairies (26.0 million hectares) and Boreal Plains (10.8 million hectares) ecozones. Land with important limitations for agriculture (Class 4 to 6) can also be found in each ecozone.

The farm area located on dependable agricultural land, which includes the very best agricultural Class 1 land, has declined by 969,802 hectares from 2001 to 2011. The three ecozones with the most dependable agricultural land all saw declines in farm area (Table 2.3), namely the Prairies, the Boreal Plains and the Mixed Wood Plains over this period.

Conversely, farm area increased on land with important limitations for agriculture in the Montane Cordillera, Prairies, Atlantic Maritime, Boreal Shield, and Pacific Maritime ecozones. This land is subject to important limitations restricting the range of crops that can be grown and requiring significant conservation or improvement practices. Clearing, draining, diking, irrigation, stone removal and intensive addition of fertilizers and other soil amendments can all require costly expenditures.

Meanwhile, settled area 18  on dependable agricultural land in Canada increased by 19% from 2000 to 2011 (Table 2.3). By ecozone, the largest increase occurred in the Mixed Wood Plains, where the settled area on dependable agricultural land grew by 128,030 hectares (+27%)—over half this growth came from the Greater Golden Horseshoe. 19  The second largest increase was noted in the Prairies ecozone, where settled area on dependable agricultural land increased 59,807 hectares (+16%).

As Canada’s population grows and cities develop and spread outward, the loss of some of the country’s best farmland will likely continue given that many population centres are located near some of the best farmland in the country, due to historical patterns of development. 20 

Landscape type by ecozone

Land cover and land use influence ecosystem functions and consequently will affect the provision of ecosystem goods and services (EGS). Natural areas that are least disturbed by human activity—for example, forests, wetlands, grasslands, and shrublands—may be more able to maintain complex ecological functions than areas that have been significantly modified from the natural landscape. Farm area can be moderately to highly modified, while settled areas are normally highly modified from their natural state.

Between 2001 and 2011, the total farm area in Canada decreased 4% from approximately 67.5 million hectares to 64.8 million hectares; however, the trend varied by ecozone (Table 2.4). In some instances, land was converted to settled areas; however, in others, land no longer farmed likely sat idle and may have begun to naturalize. 21 

In 2011, settled area was highest in the Mixed Wood Plains ecozone at nearly 892,000 hectares, which represented 5% of the total ecozone area. Settled area increased by 20% or 150,000 hectares from 2001 to 2011 in the Mixed Wood Plains ecozone, while farm area dropped by approximately 4% or 289,000 hectares and natural and naturalizing area increased 1% (+138,000 hectares). In the Prairies ecozone, settled area increased 15% (+88,000 hectares).

The Prairies and Mixed Wood Plains ecozones have relatively low proportions of natural areas—which could impact the range and quality of EGS, such as habitat provision, that are provided in these areas.

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