Water and the food system


Many socio-economic processes use (and contaminate) water, including the food system. Agriculture is a significant contributor to water quality problems, both acute ones associated with spills and more chronic ones, such as excess nutrient runoff into streams from regular farm practices. Good Canadian data is lacking, but the annual cost of damage to water from agricultural practices in the USA was estimated a number of years ago at $2.6 billion[i].

A large challenge to meeting both current and future global food demand is ensuring the availability of water and maintaining the associated sufficient flow of soil nutrients (Niu et al., 2017; Wang et al., 2012). While BC and Eastern Canada can suffer both droughty and flooding conditions, the prairie provinces, where much of Canada’s agriculture is concentrated, is naturally arid to semi-arid (Wang et al., 2012). While the use of irrigation and advances in its technology have helped historically to supply water to the prairies, it does not currently address all the issues in agricultural water management. This, taken in concert with the increasing frequencies of both droughts, floods, and storms from a changing climate and rising costs of irrigation equipment and infrastructure, indicate many solutions to conserving water resources must be employed in combination (Liyanage et al., 2021).

Food System Use and Contamination


Inputs are of course used in many places in the food system, but here the discussion focuses on manufacturing.


We no longer substantially design food production around water availability and efficient use.  In earlier periods, technological limitations required that crop and animal production reflect the water resources of a region. Many colonial land uses were designed around access to water for production and distribution, including the seigneurial system in Quebec. Crops and animal densities were selected for their effective interplay with water resources.  Of course, in these periods, water use wasn't necessarily efficient and biological contamination was an issue though not as widespread as today (e.g., livestock in the creeks), but chemical contamination was rare.


Regarding scarcity, nationally, agriculture uses about 9% of water withdrawn (excluding food processing) and only returns about 30% of it to source[iii].  Most of the rest is cycled through various biological and climatological processes. Water use efficiency is not high in agriculture, although demand management is slowly being implemented.   Water availability is a limiting production factor on much of the Prairies.  Irrigation is a significant activity in a few regions (e.g., southern Alberta and parts of Saskatchewan) and there are significant tensions over agricultural water taking.

Lake Winnipeg WAter Stewardship Project

Sk and AB expanding irrigation systems. Southern Alberta irrigated crops mostly sugar beets, corn and potatoes. How does it make sense to irrigated sugar beets? 13 irrigation districts.  1.4 million acres.  Coordinate water taking.  Acknowledge they must take less than licenses allow to protect the rivers. Water for Life Strategy AB government early 2000s.  Licenses moratorium.  Older licenses get priority.  Irrigation Rehabilitation Program AB governement (McQuaig, A. 2021. Alta irrigation districts say system passed drought test. WP Sept 23.

Milk River in S. Alberta allocations governed by an international treaty with the US through the IJC.  IJC says its doing a 4 year review to determine better sustainable management of the water resources.

No full integrated water system plan for the Saskatchewan River system (includes North and South, Bow and Oldman in Alberta).  Heavily dependent on melting snow pack from Eastern slopes in AB.  Some drought years some of the tributaries now run dry. Early snow pack melt will reduce water availability for peak irrigation times. Prairie Provinces Water Board agreement only loosely followed.  Irrigation water uses 78% of flow in Bow and Oldman. $1 billion expansion underway in AB. No environmental assessment. SK a $4 billion 10 year project to double irrigated acres out of Lake Diefenbaker.  System provides 70% of water for SK population, irrigation, hydro electric and the delta is already suffering ecologically and for indigenous people (Ferguson, D. 2022. Scientist sounds water crisis alarm.  WP Jan 6. p. 1.). Canada Infrastructure Bank wants to invest in SK project and already in AB project

SK Water security agency and funding program Agricultural Water Management Fund for farmers.  Also money for Conservation and Development Area Authorities.

IISD, https://www.iisd.org/articles/sustainable-food-systems-canada-water-use Total irrigated area in Canada amounts to about 11% of all farmed area.

Animal protein is considered to be one of the most inefficient uses of water and the largest use of water as a single food product ( Pimentel & Pimentel, 2003; Weis, 2013). Weis, T. (2013). The ecological hoofprint: The global burden of industrial livestock (pp. 1-12). New York, NY: Zed Books.


P pollution, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/60ab7d2902207048adc8c540/t/62a11ab9a5f66e36f59e3dfc/1654725318936/2022_OPF-Summary+for+Policymakers.pdf

Agricultural is among the leading sources of freshwater contamination worldwide, including in Canada (Mateo-Sagasta, Zadeh & Turral, 2017) Mateo-Sagasta, J., Marjani Zadeh, S., & Turral, H. (2017). Water pollution from agriculture: a
555 global review. http://www.fao.org/3/i7754e/i7754e.pdf

Synthetic fertilizer and manure major sources of N and P in Red River Valley and Lake Wiinnipeg (Yates, Culp, Chambers, 2012, Estimating Nutrient Production from Human Activities in Subcatchments of the  Red River, Manitoba. Journal of Great Lakes Research 38:106-114.  At least 4 provinces have  regulations limiting manure application related to soil P levels (Ontario, Quebec, NS and Manitoba) (see Gasman)

NPS nutrients now the main source of P loading into waterbodies


McRae, T., C.A.S. Smith, and L.J. Gregorich (eds.). 2000. Environmental Sustainability of Canadian Agriculture: Report of the Agri-Environmental Indicator Project. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa, Ont.
Lefebvre, A., W. Eilers, et B. Chunn (eds.), 2005. Environmental Sustainability of Canadian Agriculture: Agri-Environmental Indicator Report Series – Report #2. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.
Clearwater, R. L., T. Martin and T. Hoppe (eds.) 2016. Environmental sustainability of Canadian agriculture: Agri-environmental indicator report series – Report #4. Ottawa, ON: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
Perhaps there was also a report #3 that was relevant

Clearwater et al 2016 - developed proxy indicators for risk of water contamination from nitrogen, phosphorus, coliforms and pesticides. Their analysis reveals that on about 25% of Canadian farmland where contamination is more than low risk, the risks of contamination with nitrogen are slowly increasing primarily because nitrogen inputs are increasing at a higher rate than nitrogen outputs in food. For phosphorus, on 280 studied agricultural watersheds, 50% of them moved to higher risk classes because of increased use of mineral fertilizers and more concentrated livestock production. Coliform contamination has generally and substantially deteriorated since 1981, especially in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, the most intensive provinces for livestock production. Pesticide risks have also increased due to increased pesticide use. As a result, the compound water quality indicator derived from these individual indicators declined from  92/100 (“Desired”) to 74/100 (“Good”) between 1981 and 2011.

The main risks to water quality from Canadian agriculture are associated with nutrients - animal manure and synthetic fertilizer. Regions with high risk of surface water contamination by nitrogen include the Fraser Valley of BC, south western Ontario, and parts of the St. Lawrence lowland[ii].  Nitrogen contamination is usually associated with intensive livestock production and intensive annual cropping with crops requiring significant amounts of nitrogen.

A significant part of the problem is created by the increased number of farm animals on the Canadian landscape.  Over a 60-year period, cattle and hog populations have doubled, while the number of farms has dropped by 2/3 and cultivated area has increased more slowly than animal populations. Intensive Livestock Operations (ILOs) have received considerable attention of late related to water quality threats.  In Canada, the main ILOs are producing hogs (particularly in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec) and cattle in feedlots (especially in Alberta).  Water contamination results from  application of manure beyond the absorptive capacity of the land, surface runoff and spills from manure storage facilities.


Pesticide contamination is generally a more localized problem, though often highly significant.  Fish kills in PEI streams, associated with mostly “normal” farm applications of the pesticides endosulfan, carbofuran, mancozeb, chlorothalonil, and azinphos-methyl in potato fields, have forced the provincial government to bring in a suite of regulatory and program measures to prevent future kills.  The incentive to act was provided in part by very negative publicity for the PEI tourism industry, and the associated negative impacts on tourism revenues.

Surface waters have received most of the attention, but concerns about agricultural contamination of ground water is growing.  This is not a well-studied or resourced area at this point.

Climate change and Prairie water supply impacts. Praire Provinces chapter of Regional Perspectives report Dave Sauchyn. Prairies have most of Canada's irrigated land www.changingclimate.ca

Intensive animal  protein requires 10-1000 times more more water than plant protein (Aiking H. Future protein supply. Trends in Food Science & Technology. 2011;22:112–120; Smil V. MIT Press; Cambridge (MA), USA: 2001. Enriching the earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the transformation of world food production.)


Water use in food processing.  How much to discuss wider waste water management policy and programming. Partly depends on discussing sewage treatment and losses from the food nutrient system.

Water extraction for beverages.

Distribution (including import and export)
Household (including waste water)

Alot of household water use is related to food.  The kitchen sink for cleaning, water for cooking and beverages, ice machines, flushing the toilet.


Soap, cleaning solvents, toilet. Rich Earth Institute estimates 805 of N and P pollution in waste water comes from human waste.

Jurisdictional Issues

The challenge of jurisdictional fragmentation - feds responsible for navigation, fisheries, Indigenous lands, federal/crown land, and international or boundary waters.  Provinces for natural resources, including, but not limited to, freshwaters. Implementation of water management frequently occurs at the municipal level, as assigned by the provinces. Lack of water systems coordination can result in the duplication of effort, poor data collection and dissemination of information, and inadequate monitoring and enforcement.  Provinces often resist national standards?  Municipalities may not have the skills and resources (e.g., Walkerton). Bakker, K., and Cook, C. (2011). Water governance in Canada: Innovation and fragmentation. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 27(2), 275–289.

There are significant tensions between different levels of government and between federal government departments over water quality monitoring and pollution prevention.  These tensions revolve, in part, around the appropriate mix of sticks and carrots.  At a federal level, these disputes are being played out within APF environment pillar programming, meaning that coherent and coordinated programming is slowed by internal battles.  AAFC plays the role of assessing whether the agriculture sector can meet the expectations of Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Prairie water conservation districts, https://www.birdscanada.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Birds-Canada-Grassland-Conservation-Incentives-Guide-2.pdf

Conservation Authorities in Ontario

Irrigation districts

Government responses

After years of only spotty attention to water quality impacts in agriculture, most governments have significantly stepped up their regulatory and enforcement activity, much to the consternation of the farming community.  In the view of some regulators, the agriculture sector had a 10 - 15  year window to voluntarily comply with regulations and reduce water quality impacts, but failed to make significant progress.  The farm sector, in response, believes that it is unfairly expected to carry the financial burden of environmental improvements that have more off-site than on-site benefits.  If the proper financial incentives are in place, they believe it will be much easier to comply with regulations.  Tensions are now apparent between agricultural and natural resource departments across the country over the handling of water quality enforcement.

Most governments with significant water quality problems are using both regulation and programming to advance improvements.  As part of APF programming, all provinces are instigating or improving environmental farm planning.  The PEI government is undertaking a series of initiatives to support potato farmers particularly by providing per acre payments to support the conversion to IPM.  Ontario is introducing extensive regulations regarding manure management.  Several years ago, Quebec instituted nutrient management rules to reduce in particular  phosphorus pollution.

Significant research attention goes to drought resistant plant breeding, and to the design of Prairie cropping systems that reduce moisture demands.  Irrigated districts are implementing plans to improve irrigation efficiency.

Federal government claims to be using Integrated Water Resource Management or Integrated Watershed Management. Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. (2016). Summary of integrated watershed management approaches across Canada. https://www.ccme.ca/files/Resources/water/water_conservation/Summary of Integrated Watershed Management Approaches Across Canada PN 1559.pdf. Implementation difficult because of skill and jurisdictional gaps, short on adaptive management as a result Petit, O. (2016). Paradise lost? The difficulties in defining and monitoring Integrated Water Resources Management indicators. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 21, 58–64.

Canada Water Act (1985), establishes agreements and/or memorandums of understanding (MOUs) to coordinate/harmonize efforts and provide support to various levels of governance .  Federal water quality guidances don't have to be adopted by provinces?

Wastewater management is the collective responsibility of Federal, provincial, and municipal governing bodies. Food processors? The Federal government specifies minimum effluent water standards and provincial and territorial governments issue permits for WWTPs (Mavinic et al., 2018

Mavinic, D., Arora, S., Brooks, C., Comeau, Y., Darbyshire, M., Kidd, K., McClenaghan, T., and Servos, M. (2018). Canada’s Challenges and Opportunities to Address Contaminants in Wastewater: National Expert Panel Report (Issue March).

Mavinic, D., Arora, S., Brooks, C., Comeau, Y., Darbyshire, M., Kidd, K., Mcclenaghan, T., Servos, M., Chair, S. A. J., and Mcclenaghan, T. (2018). Canada’s challenges and opportunities to address contaminants in wastewater: supporting document 2 - wastewater treatment practice and regulations in Canada and other jurisdictions. In Canadian Water Network (Issue March). http://cwn-rce.ca/wp-content/uploads/projects/other-files/Canadas-Challenges-and-Opportunities-to-Address-Contaminants-in-Wastewater/CWN-Report-on-Contaminants-in-WW-Supporting-Doc-2.pdf

Mavinic, D., Arora, S., Brooks, C., Darbyshire, M., Kidd, K., Chair, S. A. J., and Mcclenaghan, T. (2018). Canada’s challenges and opportunities to address contaminants in wastewater: Supporting document 2. In Canadian Water Network (Issue March). http://www.cwn-rce.ca/assets/resources/pdf/2018-Contaminants-in-Wastewater-Expert-Panel-Report/CWN-2018-Expert-Panel-Report-on-Contaminants-in-Wastewater.pdf

).Fisheries Act has a regulation – Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulation – which sets minimum effluent standards for pollutants discharged into waters frequented by fish ( Although virtually all natural surface waters have fish, the GOC is reluctant to extend its environmental jurisdiction to all inland waters. The regulation sets effluent standards for total suspended solids (TSS), carbonaceous biochemical oxygen-demanding material (CBOD), total residual chlorine, and un-ionized ammonia (NH3), which must be achieved by secondary treatment or better (ECCC, 2020; Mavinic et al., 2018). Also, under the Federal Environmental Protection Act, WWTPs with discharge rates that exceed 10,000 m3/day are required to monitor, meet thresholds, and report on the release of several substances, including P (Mavinic et al., 2018).

Vercammen, J. (2019). A dynamic analysis of cost-share agri-environmental programs. Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics, 67(1), 15–30.


No regulatory pathways for source separated and pasteurized human urine.  Rich Earth Institute. Pilot project

Conceptual frameworks for solutions

Swatek, L. 2015. Seeing "invisible water": challenging conceptions of water for food, agriculture and human security.  Can. J. Development Studies

One Health

The challenge of the myth of abundance

“Integrated watershed management (IWM) is a continuous and adaptive process of managing human activities in an ecosystem, within a defined watershed. IWM involves the integration of environmental, social and economic decisions and activities through an inclusive decision-making process to manage the protection, conservation, restoration and enhancement of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem features, functions and linkages. Governance is a collaborative approach appropriate to the watershed and issues at hand.” (CCME, 2016).Alberta and Manitoba have IWMPs for all or some of their major river watersheds, whereas Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Saskatchewan have  Source Water Protection Plans (SWPPs) for their surface water watersheds

OECD on water governance:  three main principles: effectiveness, efficiency, and trust and engagement  Effectiveness  is the clear definition of goals and targets within policy for each level of government and implementation  to meet them. Efficiency  to maximize the benefits of sustainable water management and welfare while incurring minimal costs to society. Trust and engagement for public confidence around water management strategies. OECD. (2015). OECD Principles on Water Governance. Draft for consulation at the 7th World Water Forum. Report, May, 1–23; Akhmouch, A., and Correia, F. N. (2016). The 12 OECD principles on water governance – When science meets policy. Utilities Policy, 43, 14–20.


  • more water efficient cropping and animal systems, including different animal choices for more efficiency in dryland areas
  • landscape level watershed management for irrigation but also on farm water contouring (the Keyline Plan for example)
  • more water - efficient food and beverage processing
  • better water use efficiency in the kitchen and toilets (low flush toilets!)

As with other environmental programs, there is excessive emphasis on best management practices (BMPs) and insufficient attention paid to farming systems that reduce pollution (see discussion of organic systems in section 6).  A number of jurisdictions in the US and Europe have had success organizing sub-watershed projects, sometimes in collaboration with water utilities, where all the farms in the  sub-watershed convert to a sustainable production system. There are tentative steps to initiate some projects of this type in Canada.

Many things contribute to water problems, so the focus here is on reducing negative food system impacts, a prevention approach.  There can however be a need for control and mitigation.  These are often more expensive and not necessarily effective, with secondary negative effects on ecosystems.

Ideas to develop, from Gasman

Zaga-Mendez, A., Kolinjivadi, V., Bissonnette, J. F., and Dupras, J. (2020). Mixing public and private agri-environment schemes: Effects on farmers participation in quebec, canada. International Journal of the Commons, 14(1), 296–312.

Water quality and livestock health -  SK has a risk mitigation program that includes chemical and physical treatment.  Some provinces extension agents will work with farmers when a problem is identified.  But shifting out of one on one?

Keeping livestock out of watercourses

To what extent do I need to talk about drinking water standards? And recreational water guidelines?

Evidence in Ontario that blooms aren't declining, so to what extent does that indicate the failings of BMP strategies? Winter, J. G., Desellas, A. M., Fletcher, R., Heintsch, L., Morley, A., Nakamoto, L., and Utsumi, K. (2011). Algal blooms in Ontario, Canada: Increases in reports since 1994. Lake and Reservoir Management, 27(2), 107–114.

Increases in soluble reactive P from agriculture is a main cause of bloom increases in Lake Erie.


The need for water systems co-ordination (water councils, conservation authorities)

See Gasman Table 30

MB put in place 14 watershed districts in 2020 to replace 18 conservation districts. Based on watersheds. Operated as provincial / municipal partnerships. Endowment fund, Growing Outcome in Watersheds.  Similar to ALUS model. Fund farmers for ecosystem services. Updates to Water Rights Act regulations, no net loss approach to wetlands.  Cannot drain sloughs (class 4, 5 wetlands).

Mandatory farm conversion around priority lakes and watersheds, with reduced livestock densities

Riffing off the NYC water supply story in upstate NY; https://novascotia.ca/agri/documents/business-research/EGSProgramReviewPaper.pdf

Water and beverage production and distribution.

[i] Pretty, J. et al. 2000. An assessment of the external costs of UK agriculture. Agricultural Systems 65:113-136.

[ii] MacDonald, K.B. 2000. Risk of water contamination by nitrogen.  In: McRae, T. et al. (eds.). 2000. Environmental Sustainability of Canadian Agriculture: report of the agri-environmental indicators project.  Agriculture and Agrifood Canada, Ottawa. Pp. 117-123.

[iii] AAFC data, http://www.agr.gc.ca/policy/environment/water_e.phtml