Water and the food system

From MacRae (2004)

Many socio-economic processes use (and contaminate) water, including the food system. This section focuses on identifiable ways that the food system is both a problem and potentially a solution to water systems. This is often challenging because of data limitations, including identifying the food system's contribution to a problem, and the degree to watch interventions can be a solution relative to other socio-economic systems.

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 is estimated at $2.6 billion[i].

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

Canada's series of agri-environmental indicator reports show that all water quality indicators, including risk of nitrogen, phosphorous, coliforms, and pesticide contamination have deterioriated since 1981 (McRae et al etc). The compound water quality indicator derived from individual indicator declined from  92/100 (“Desired”) to 74/100 (“Good”) between 1981 and 2011. Phosphorous  contamination risk was the most severe.

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.

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.

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.

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 there are looming tensions over water taking.

Seriousness of problem: Moderately high

Current government view of problem and activities

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.

Key barriers to change

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.

Potential for significant improvement with suitable investments

  1. Low in the near term until internal disputes are sorted out.

Solutions that are not receiving suitable attention

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

The challenge of the myth of abundance

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.

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.

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.

“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

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.

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

Irrigation use and contaminated irrigation water posing threat to humans

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.

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.

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.)

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

[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