Section 3: Ecosystems goods and services from agriculture

Agricultural ecosystems produce many goods and services that provide benefits for human well-being. These ecosystem goods and services (EGS) can include the outputs of farm production—food, fibre and fuel—as well as other products, although discussion continues on how exactly to define and categorize individual services. 1  Agricultural land and activities can also contribute to the provision of regulating and cultural services.

The agricultural sector exemplifies how the economy is dependent on the availability of ecosystem services. The production of agricultural goods is dependent on many supporting services provided by ecosystems. Without nutrient cycling, 2  primary production, 3  pollination, soil moisture, and other services, agriculture and the benefits it provides to people would not be possible.

Agricultural goods

Agricultural activities in Canada contribute to the production of many provisioning services including crops, livestock, milk, eggs and other products. At an international level, Canada ranked 10th in the world for cereal production, producing about 1.8% of global cereal crops, and ranked 11th for meat production, accounting for about 1.5% of worldwide production (Table 3.1).

The output from farm operations totaled more than 134 million tonnes in 2012, with farm cash receipts of $54.2 billion (Table 3.2 and 3.3). 4  By weight, food and fodder crops, such as wheat, canola, potatoes, fruit, vegetables and hay, account for 90% of the output of agriculture, followed by milk (6%) and livestock and poultry meat (4%) in 2012. As a proportion of farm receipts, however, food and fodder crops accounted for 51%, followed by livestock and poultry (25%), milk (11%), with eggs, maple and honey products, other crops, alternative livestock and livestock products and receipts from direct payments making up the remainder.

Agricultural production varies by region across the country. By weight, the Prairie provinces accounted for 63% of food and fodder crop production in 2012; Quebec, Ontario and Alberta accounted for 75% of livestock and poultry meat production; and Quebec and Ontario accounted for 70% of milk production and 55% of egg production. Farm cash receipts were split almost evenly between Ontario (23%), Alberta (22%) and Saskatchewan (22%), followed by Quebec (15%) and Manitoba (10%).

Agricultural production by weight was up over the period of 2000 to 2012. 5  Farm cash receipts (in 2007 constant dollars) increased 15% over the same period, largely due to increases in food and fodder crops (Chart 3.1).

Fish—perhaps the best known provisioning service of freshwater and marine and coastal ecosystems—can be captured and are increasingly farmed for human consumption (see Textbox 4).

Textbox 4: Aquaculture production

Aquaculture—the farming of marine and freshwater animals and plants in natural or artificial aquatic environments—shares certain similarities with land-based agriculture as it also depends heavily on ecosystem services to produce its output. Aquaculture is often contrasted with commercial fishing.

The Canadian aquaculture industry produced approximately 173,000 tonnes of fish and shellfish in 2012 (Table 3.2), compared to the 787,000 tonnes of fish and shellfish harvested in commercial fisheries. 6  Most aquaculture production in Canada occurs on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The total value of this production, an estimated $825 million (Table 3.3) was split almost equally between the two coasts in 2012.

The industry has grown significantly in recent decades, with production increasing 249% from 1991 to 2012. 7  In 2012, salmon accounted for 62% of aquaculture production, followed by mussels (16%), oysters (6%), and trout (4%).

Approximately 3,300 persons were directly employed in the aquaculture industry in 2013, compared to 17,200 persons employed in fishing. 8  Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimates that aquaculture also generates a large number of spin-off jobs in fish feed manufacturing, transportation and other related industries. 9 

Some of the main environmental issues faced by the industry include the impacts of excess feed on the ecosystem, the escape of farmed fish, disease and pests, and issues with organic waste, which are mitigated through appropriate aquaculture farm siting, escape prevention and other management activities. 10 

Ecosystem services from agricultural landscapes and practices

In addition to their ability to provide food, agricultural landscapes are also valued for their potential to provide other ecosystem services, 11  such as carbon sequestration, the provision of wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and scenic landscapes. Beneficial management practices are also increasingly used to reduce potential environmental impacts associated with agriculture and improve the provision of EGS.


Agricultural ecosystems in Canada provide habitat for 588 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. 12  These species rely on a variety of agricultural land types as habitat for breeding, feeding and other uses to varying degrees—some may be dependent on a specific type of agricultural land, while others are not.

From the perspective of wildlife, natural and semi-natural areas on farms such as woodland, wetland and riparian areas 13  provide the most valuable habitat, followed by natural pasture. 14  Three-quarters of species using agricultural land for habitat can use woodland, wetland and riparian areas for breeding and feeding requirements, while 29% use natural pasture land. 15  In 2011, woodlands and wetlands accounted for 8% of farm area, while natural pasture accounted for a further 23% (Table 3.4). Seeded or tame pasture, hay and various types of cropland can also be used by wildlife for breeding, feeding and other uses, but to a lesser extent—for example, only 13% of the species associated with agricultural land can meet their habitat requirements on cropland. 16 

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has assessed the habitat capacity of agricultural landscapes across the country. In 2006, farmland with high and very high habitat capacity was mostly found in Atlantic Canada and parts of Quebec, while land with very low and low habitat capacity was found mostly in the Prairies and southern Ontario and Quebec. 17  Areas with low habitat capacity were associated with a relatively small percentage of natural and semi-natural land in the agricultural landscape, and often agriculture was the dominant land use in the area.

Average national habitat capacity on agricultural land decreased from 1986 to 2006 as a result of reductions in natural and semi-natural land covers due to the intensification of agricultural operations. 18  The importance of these reductions in habitat capacity varies for different regions of the country, depending on whether the surrounding landscape contains natural and semi-natural land that is suitable for habitat.

Most agricultural crops rely on pollination in order to set fruit and seed. While major cereal crops including wheat, corn, rye, barley and oats are pollinated by wind, pollination by bees and other insects, birds, bats or other animals is required or can improve yields for most fruit, vegetable, forage and oilseed crops. 19  Natural areas within and around agricultural landscapes provide important habitat for wild pollinators. Greater distances from semi-natural and natural areas have been associated with reduced pollination and yields. 20 , 21  A recent study for Environment Canada showed that a 50% reduction in wild pollination could result in an annual loss of an estimated $53 million in the value of Canadian fruit production. 22 

As well, 3,272 farms in Canada reported owning honeybees for honey production or pollination, while 737 reported owning other pollinating bees, such as alfalfa leafcutters, bumblebees or blue orchard bees in 2011. 23  Farmers often rent these bees to help improve pollination of alfalfa, cranberries, greenhouse tomatoes and other crops. Further, these other bees were reported almost exclusively in the three Prairie provinces. 24 

Water regulation and purification, soil conservation and climate regulation

The ability of agricultural ecosystems to provide various regulating and supporting services depends on landscape characteristics, as well as specific agricultural practices. For example, the presence of wetlands, small dams and land covers that retain water, slow runoff or encourage water infiltration into soils can help reduce peak streamflow and flooding. Wetlands and riparian buffer zones 25  can also improve water quality by helping to filter and trap soil, nutrients and pollutants before they enter streams, rivers or lakes, while windbreaks and shelterbelts can reduce soil erosion. Use of soil conservation practices such as reduced or no-till and cover cropping can also help reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and sequester carbon in soils.

While there were 933 large dams in Canada in 2002, only 51 were used solely for irrigation. 26  However, there are thousands more small dams, many built to support irrigation in western Canada. 27  While there are environmental impacts associated with dams, they can also provide important benefits. A study of the South Tobacco Creek watershed in south-central Manitoba showed that small earthen dams and reservoirs on farms can reduce peak streamflow and flooding as well as sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into streams. 28 

Overall, 21% of farms had riparian buffer zones to protect water bodies and 30% of farms had windbreaks or shelterbelts in 2011 (Table 3.5). The proportion of farms with riparian buffers was highest in Prince Edward Island, which can be partly explained by regulatory requirements. 29  Windbreaks or shelterbelts were most common in Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and Alberta.

AAFC has developed a soil organic carbon change indicator which provides an estimate of how much carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and sequestered in agricultural soils. 30  Soil organic carbon is influenced by land management practices such as tillage, 31  summerfallow, 32  cover cropping 33  and use of animal and green manures. 34 

Overall, soil organic carbon retention has improved from the mid 1980s to 2006 as a result of farm management practices such as reductions in the use of conventional tillage and summerfallow. 35  These changes have resulted in cropland becoming a net sink 36  for atmospheric carbon dioxide. In 2012, the net storage of greenhouse gases in cropland was 5 megatonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2 eq). 37  Increased soil organic matter also improves soil structure and fertility, resulting in better overall soil health. However, soil organic matter declined in central and Atlantic Canada as a result in changes from hay and pasture land to annual crops. 38 

Cultural services

Although farmland is normally privately owned, Canadians benefit from the many opportunities to enjoy the scenic views provided by agricultural landscapes and pursue recreation, tourism and education opportunities on farms.

As a result of historic settlement patterns, many agricultural areas are located near cities and towns, providing opportunities for families to harvest pumpkins at the pumpkin patch, enjoy pancakes with maple syrup at the local sugar shack, or learn about farm animals at petting zoos.

In Quebec, 837 farm operations provided agri-tourism opportunities in 2012, up 57% from 534 in 2005. 39  Other farms and businesses provide related services, such as farm gate sales, U-pick operations, as well as food processing activities (e.g., artisanal cheese and bread production) or farm stays. Canada’s wine regions bring visitors from near and far and are becoming increasingly important tourist attractions. A recent study estimated 3.0 million tourists visited Canadian wineries in 2011. 40 

People in areas that are largely agricultural may also benefit from a sense of community identity and shared heritage. 41  Many Canadians also benefit from knowing that food production occurs locally, that agricultural land and food security is preserved for future generations and that farming and rural communities remain viable. 42 , 43 , 44 

Next section | Previous section

Date modified: