Current state of sustainable food in Canada





Distribution and retail


No governments in Canada collect robust data on the adoption of sustainable practices in the food system, so much has to be estimated from a range of sources. As discussed in Get Started, Problems, the difficulties are compounded by weak regional  data collection on environmental problems associated with food system activities.  The best we have is a series of agrienvironmental indicator reports from AAFC (McRae et al. 2000; Lefebvre et al., 2005; Eilers et al., 2010; Clearwater et al., 2016), but many of these indicators are extrapolated from theoretical rather than empirical sources, and do not provide much information on successful system changes that mitigate the identified problems.  Adoption of sustainable systems is low and likely in the 5-10% range by area, economic activity or food system sector.  See also the discussion under Goal 2, Demand - supply coordination, The state of regional food in Canada.

The weak state of sustainability adoption in Canada is likely the product of numerous forces.  Canada's abundant natural resources have created a blasé attitude regarding their exhaustability.  White settlers have historically been pillagers, effectively destroying the relationships between humans and natural systems practiced by First Nations peoples, and thereby the livelihoods and cultures of indigenous populations. The pyscho-social conditions underlying such behaviour have been explored by Hill (1986).  The capitalist economic model has supported such exploitative activities, providing a convincing but distorted rationale for such behaviour. Firms with a commitment to sustainability generally struggle in an environment that is unsupportive.  As a result, many may be practicing advanced sustainability, but selling their products through conventional supply chains. Government interventions have  failed to both curtail the excesses of capitalism and support sufficiently innovation for sustainable food, including significant deficiencies in federal and provincial agri-environmental programming.

Using agroecological and transition theory as lenses, a range of approaches to sustainability can be identified.  World Wildlife Fund Canada, working with MacRae in the early 2000s, developed a matrix approach to understanding sustainable farming that supported biodiversity.

Farming for biodiversity

This conception is framed by an axis addressing production inputs against one that reflects environmental stewardship.  Conventional agriculture, having the lowest levels of stewardship and highest synthetic and energy inputs, is located in the bottom left hand corner. Deeply ecological approaches that use minimal external inputs and practice high levels of stewardship are in the top right.  Other schools of thought are spread across the matrix, depending on the degree to which they reduce input use and increase stewardship.  A similar matrix could be used to describe other areas of food system change. The challenge then is to move all schools of thought in sustainable food systems towards the deeply ecological corner.  We'll review where things are in the upcoming sections.


Sustainable agriculture is both a philosophy and a system of farming. It has its roots in a set of values that reflect a state of awareness of ecological and social realities and of one's ability to take effective action. It involves design and management procedures that work with natural processes to conserve all resources, minimize waste and environ­mental impact, while maintaining or improving farm profitability.  As well, such systems aim to produce food that is nutritious and uncontaminated with products that harm human health. (MacRae et al., 1990):

Although there are many schools of thought in sustainable agriculture (see MacRae et al., 1990),  few of them are well defined and monitored for adoption. Farmers with a strong ecological orientation typically differ in the following ways from those without one:

  • Soil management: longer rotations, more OM incorporation, may be more tillage to accelerate decomposition and for weed control, more composting, few to no synthetic fertilizers.  Building soil health is a key part of the transition.
  • Pest management: pest prevention, improving the health of the crop (which is linked to soil health), attracting beneficial organisms, crop diversification, biological controls, few to no synthetic pesticides.
  • Animals: altered housing, more exercise, lower stocking rates, different feeding regimes (e.g., less grain), different breeding cycles, few to no synthetic hormones and antibiotics (except to save an animal’s life).

Governments have started collecting data on adoption of certain practices that can be part of a sustainable system, but the practices do not tell us much about systems adoption (see discussion of Instruments). The Canadian Census of Agriculture and the Farm Environmental Management Survey are two Canadian examples of this limited approach. Only organic production has a  standard legally recognized by the federal government and provinces (federally soon to be under the Safe Food For Canadians Act, shifting in January 2019 from the Canadian Agricultural Products Act).  Some NGOs and business associations have also developed standards but they do not have state sanction.  Some private firms have developed their own standards but these are not typically subject to external verification.

Organic agriculture

Organic farming is a centuries old practice, but in the modern era, older wisdom has been blended with new science to create current organic production regimes.  Because organic food has been recognized in the marketplace, following years of development by non-governmental organizations and organic farmers, governments around the world (see Willer and Leroud, 2017) have moved to support the authenticity of organic claims by regulating the use of the term and codifying in law production and processing practices consistent with the organic approach. In Canada, production and processing standards were created with the Canadian General Standards Board. The rules governing the organic system - production, processing, labeling, inspection, certification, accreditation - are now regulated under the Safe for Food Canadians Act.

The primary sources of data are the Census of Agriculture, some provincial surveys and the organic certifiers surveyed regularly by Canadian Organic Growers and the Canada Organic Trade Association (COTA).  Canada had about 4156 producers in 2016, on about 3 million acres of farmed area. More details can be found on the COTA web site. These numbers represent about 2% of farmers and 1.7% of farmland.  There is some evidence that anywhere from 3-10 farmers are in transition or could be certified, for every one that is certified, but much of this evidence is self-reported and unverified.

Other sustainable systems: permaculture, pasture systems, animal welfare, low input

Permaculture (Mollison, 1997) is a deeply ecological approach to food production, based on optimizing the use of perennials.   While some farmers have had success - particularly in tree and bush nut and fruit and pasture ruminant systems - it is challenging in the Canadian context, especially for small grains and vegetables. There are no formal standards for permaculture and no accurate data exist on how many producers there are, though it is likely that some percentage of organic farmers are practicing permaculture.

Holistic resource management, rotational grazing and related pasture management systems also exist, sometimes also practiced by organic producers.  Although a lot of shallow rotational grazing is being employed (an improvement over earlier periods), particularly in beef (Farmers for Climate Solutions, 2021), it is the more intensive forms that are desirable.  These are  deeply ecological in design and mimic historical patterns of animal - grassland interactions.  There are a few private standards for grass-fed beef and dairy, but Canada does not collect specific data on the uptake of such systems.

Numerous organizations have put forth animal welfare standards that sometimes blend environmental and humane treatment dimensions. Some, such as the SPCA BC, have standards, verification and labelling systems that farmers use to differentiate their products in the marketplace.  Others, such as the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC), create voluntary standards that producers can follow and use as the basis for assessment, but there are no NFACC verification and labelling systems to support them.  There is significant debate about the practices that balance humane treatment with economic viability.  The organizations producing the standards may have estimates of adoption, but governments do not formally monitor this area.

Similarly, many private standards have existed for low-input systems, including Integrated Pest Management, Integrated Crop Production, and Natural Animal Production.  Only a few programs have detailed standards that can readily  be monitored, and a number of these have failed due to the difficulties of attempting to advance sustainability when governments fail to properly act (e.g., Local Food Plus).  Some programs were well developed, but because there were no clear marketing and market promotion dimensions (with associated inspection certification procedures), uptake by producers was limited. Many farm and commodity groups have struggled with how such programs differentiate sustainability adoption among their members and therefore they've failed to implement fully effective programs.  Other programs (e.g, the  Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops and the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef) are primarily industry-driven initiatives with relatively weak guidelines or standards.  Program sponsors have data on participation but it is not necessarily publicly available or verifiable.

Commercial urban agriculture: current state and future role

To be developed

Commercial urban food production in most Canadian cities is at a very low level, in part because of changes to zoning away from food production, in part because of the extensive nature of built form, in part because production is primarily viewed as a rural activity.  A 2015 survey found that over half the mid-sized cities canvassed still had some level of small scale farming with approximately 2.5 farms / 100,000 people (Soderholm, 2015). Urban edges often have more production in the zones between urban and rural.  Because of restrictions on pesticide use in many municipalities, production is often organic or near organic, but not necessarily certifed.

Estimates vary widely on how much commercial food production is feasible in cities.  MacRae et al. (2010) estimated that 10% of Toronto's fresh vegetable requirements  could be met  with organic production, involving both ground and roof tops.  In the late 2010s, it appeared that Toronto had at least 20 enterprises focused on production and distribution within the city (Miller, 2017), mostly organic because of the pesticide use restrictions.  The number is growing, but many more would be required to meet a 10% target. Other studies have been more optimistic.  Grewal and Grewal (2012) concluded that Cleveland (near the Canadian border), which has experienced  some economic decline with significant amounts of vacant land, could if 80% of every vacant lot was used, generate between 22% and 48% of Cleveland’s vegetables and fruit needs, depending on whether  production was conventional, intensive, or hydroponic.  25% of both poultry and shell eggs requirements, and 100% of honey could also be met. These outcomes are not realistic in the near to medium term because of the regulatory changes, infrastructure, supply chain linkages, resources and training required to bring them to fruition.

Montreal has the world's largest commercial urban food rooftop greenhouse, Lufa Farms, an estimated 3 football fields in size located on top of an old Sears warehouse. They focus on tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, peppers, greens, and herbs and calculate roughly that 19 such operations could provide for the entire city (Karwacki, 2020).

Ultimately, the question of how much city space to devote to food production, and what foods, is linked to landscape level and demand-supply coordination (see Goal 2).

Stolhandske, S., & Evans, T. L. (2017). On the Bleeding Edge of Farming the City: An Ethnographic Study of Small-scale Commercial Urban Farming in Vancouver. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 7(2), 29-49

Farming in Canada's CMAs.  Stats Can.

Beckie, M. A., Hanson, L. L., & Schrader, D. (2013). Farms or freeways? Citizen engagement and municipal governance in Edmonton’s food and agriculture strategy development. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 4
(1), 15–31


Globally, aquaculture now provides 50% of all seafood.  Most of what is traded globally (as opposed to sold in local markets or self-provisioned) is produced in production systems that mimic industrial food production practices, with less than 5% currently certified sustainable by mostly private standard setters.  This means that the bulk of aquaculture production is having negative environmental impacts on aquatic systems, and may also be negatively affecting communities located near production facilities.  North American and European supermarket chains are the largest buyers of sustainable seafood, given their recent commitments to seafood sustainability (Bush et al., 2013).  In Canada, aquaculture represents about 20% of total seafood production (aquaculture statistics, DFO).  In aquaculture systems, some 45 different species of finfish, shellfish and marine algae are commercially cultivated in Canada primarily under industrial approaches, with salmon, mussels, oysters, and trout making up over 85% of production (DFO). There is, however, also some small scale aquaculture, some of it commercial, some if for own use, for example farm ponds stocked with trout for recreational fishing and consumption.

Integrated ecological systems

Ecological aquaculture has been practiced for centuries, particularly in the global south, usually small scale pond and paddy culture involving fish, seafood and food plants.  Many small scale projects in Canada attempt to mimic these approaches, usually in interior environments given the limited Canadian growing season (e.g., Ripple Farms). Open-water and river ecological systems are more challenging to design ecologically, because the production densities are typically out of balance with the local ecosystem.

Sustainable certification

The regulation of aquaculture in Canada is complex, with a mix of federal, provincial and shared authority, depending on the province (see Instruments, Constitutional Provisions).  This complexity has produced calls for a federal Aquaculture Act to provide clarity, though this is not projected to be in place until 2022 and it does not appear that sustainability will be a priority of the legislation (see DFO for details).  Although the Canadian government claims to have a sustainable aquaculture program, it's elements and approach are quite limited, focusing on research (pests and pathogens, escapes, pollution, habitat impacts and negative effects on other organisms), regulatory science  and regulations (addressing particularly diseases).  While this is all helpful, it does not represent a full sustainability program, which must include the robust application of ecological theory to the very design of aquaculture operations.  Partly as a result of this limited approach, private actors have attempted to fill the void.

Organic standards and certification now will include aquaculture with the coming into force of the Safe Food for Canadians Act in January 2019.

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) has developed 13 species specific standards with the highest export market demand.  This covers less than half of total global aquaculture production by weight, however, so very significant production remains uncertifiable and not all the seafood currently eligible participates since the programs are voluntary.  Two other private certifiers have developed multispecies standards that expands the potential theoretical impact, but uptake is low.  Generally, these schemes are criticized for taking a relatively narrow view of sustainability (Bush et al., 2013).

Certified aquaculture companies that belong to the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance are still relatively limited.  Their production covers Atlantic salmon, sturgeon, mussels and oysters.  What percentage of the Canadian market this represents is unclear. The ASC has certified 27 operations in Canada, all Atlantic Salmon.

The Aboriginal Aquaculture Association also has standards, certification and labelling, based on aboriginal principles of sustainability.  Their standards and processes build aboriginal principles and values into existing  certification schemes.  They acknowledge the challenges of integrating larger scale production with aboriginal values.

It appears then that adoption levels remain relatively low and there is limited tracking of adoption by the state.

Commercial urban aquaculture and aquaponics: current state and future role

To be developed


The dominant notion of sustainable processing is rooted in process efficiencies: pollution reduction, energy efficiency, resource minimization (including water) in plant operations, recycling, landscape beautification.  All these aspects are important, but ultimately a limited approach to sustainable food processing because they do not fully involve the ingredients and the labour, typically the biggest expenses in food processing.  A more robust approrach blends those dimensions with transition to fully sustainable food supply chains, and changes to labour as part of a commitment to social and community sustainability.


Canada has about 1739 certified organic processors, handlers and retailers (2016).  The majority of these would be processors and handlers (see Distribution and Retail for discussion of this sector).  Organic processors can only use certified organic ingredients (with limited exceptions for minor ingredients that may not be available organically), can only use approved processes (many conventional processing practices are not permitted in organic processing) and must respect the Permitted Substances List for ingredients and plant operations.  Because organic volumes are still relatively small, many plants and handlers deal with small batches during specific times in their production and operational   cycles and are not dedicated organic processing and handling plants.

There are over 7000 food processors in Canada so a significant percentage of them are involved in organic processing if measuring by firm, but when measuring by value of food processed, the percentage would be quite small since few of these processors just process organic goods, and many of them are small to medium enterprises that don't handle significant volumes.


Most other private standards do not have significant requirements of processors and handlers, except traceability / chain of custody  to ensure that the sustainable product is not co-mingled with conventional product they might also be handling.  There are few public data on such enterprises.

Some mainstream manufacturers claim to have sustainable programs (e.g., free-run eggs, nature-grown) but these typically are not subject to clearly articulated standards and independent verification.  In many cases, the firms are able to work around imprecise federal labeling rules that allow them to make sustainable claims for their products (see Goal 1, Consumer Information Systems).

Distribution and retail


The organic food market is still small in Canada, about $5.4 billion in sales in 2017 (roughly 2.6% of consumer retail spending), However, this represents almost 9% year over year growth since 2012, the only significant growth sector in the food system.. AAFC data show that retail sales have shifted over time from primarily health food stores to mainstream retailers, with almost half of all organic sales attributable to mainstream retail outlets.  Many small health food stores are dedicated to organic and will certify, but mainstream retailers are much less likely to do so.

Canada is a significant importer of certified organic food, particularly from the US, though only some of organic food sales is tracked.  Estimates are that 60-85% of the organic food consumed in Canada is imported (MacRae et al., 2009).  The authenticity of the important system is facilitated by government to government reciprocity agreements with Canada's major trading partners (US, EU and Japan).  These agreements account for generally small variations in national standards and authentication procedures in order to assure trade flows.  Export volumes are relatively low relative to conventional products, with AAFC estimating exports, mostly grains and oilseeds, at around half a billion dollars in 2012.  Although this helps satisfy consumer markets, the import economy does not produce landscape level benefits for Canada associated with sustainable farming adoption.


Many retailers also carry other kinds of sustainable products, but in the absence of regulated certification systems, such products are often difficult for consumers to identify (see Goal 1, Consumer Information Systems).  Some mainstream retailers have in-house, private label programs (e.g., Hormone-free, antiobiotic- free meat, cage - free eggs) but these typically do not have publicly available standards and are not subject to independent verification, raising questions about the legitimacy of the claims.