From MacRae 2004
Agriculture, as practised in Canada, has largely been a force reducing biodiversity. This has happened as a result of numerous activities:
- the destruction of native habitat when farmland is created. For example, 93% of Prairie ecozones are in agriculture and only 1% of the tall grass prairie, 19% of the mixed grass prairieand 16% of aspen parkland remain[i]. One of the likely impacts is that over half of bird species in the Breeding Bird Survey are in decline on the prairies, particularly grassland species[ii].
- The destruction of corridors and habitat adjacent to farmed fields. Agriculture is a major cause of habitat fragmentation, with disconnected parcels of woodlots across the landscape, and the elimination of field borders that serve as corridors for wildlife movement.
- Pollution from agricultural practices (e.g., synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, soil and manure runoff associated with poor management) disrupts terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and changes wildlife populations. Pesticides kill many non-target organisms, especially birds and insects. The cost of pesticide damage to all natural capital in the USA is estimated at $3.70 / kg of active ingredient applied[iii].
- Simplification of agroecosystems (e.g., very limited crop rotations that result in vast acreages in only 2 or 3 crops, and poor range management) removes habitat and food sources.
- Weed management practices (excessive tillage, herbicides, herbicide - tolerant (GE) crops) that eliminate food sources and disturb ground habitats
- Poor management of wetlands, streams and riparian zones on farm properties, including excessive access to these areas by grazing animals.
- Introduction of exotic species (plants, pests). Agriculture is a major source of new species introduction to natural ecosystems.
Seriousness of problem: Moderately high, with High ratings in some localized regions where agricultural practices are contributing to endangerment of species.
Current government view of problem and activities
The federal government and some provinces do have biodiversity conservation strategies as responses to the Convention on Biological Diversity. However, these strategies are by and large vague, and implementation on the broad scale has generally been modest. Individual farmers have worked to create habitat for wildlife, often supported by NGOs like Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy or World Wildlife Fund (WWF).. Provincial governments or their paragovernmental agencies have often played a significant role in such projects.
The new APF has identified biodiversity conservation as a priority area although targets and performance measures are not yet well developed. Two environment pillar programs are being implemented to improve biodiversity - Environmental Farm Planning and the Greencover Program - but their effectiveness is unclear at this point, and significant criticisms have been levelled at both programs.
Key barriers to change
There is little landscape level planning in agriculture. In fact, agriculture as a profession and practice does not have a design and planning culture. Even if there were such a culture, at this point, private property rights in agriculture so trump collective interests that putting in place mechanisms to encourage collaboration across farms is proving difficult. As well, agricultural professionals generally do not examine how the working landscape can be altered to support biodiversity, focussing instead on the so-called non-productive margins. These margins are important, but the effectiveness of managing the margins can be significantly complemented or undermined by how cultivated land is managed. This receives little attention. Finally, many in agriculture still view wildlife as pests to be controlled or eliminated rather than managed to optimize both environmental and economic performance.
A significant policy barrier arises from the difficulty scientists are having developing biodiversity conservation performance measures. This is, admittedly, a complicated area, and given the current role science plays in formulating much of agricultural policy, scientific confusion on this question is holding up program design.
Potential for significant improvement with suitable investments
- Although projects show promise on a farm by farm basis, the challenges of producing change on a wider scale, including regional collaboration, are significant and the infrastructure to address them not well developed at this point.
Solutions that are not receiving suitable attention
- Farming systems that conserve biodiversity on the productive landscape (see section 6)
- Regional conservation initiatives, based on watersheds or important terrestrial features, that provide incentives for farmers to collaborate
A key question is how much land do we actually need for food and industrial products? This is part of the Demand-supply Co-ordination question (see Goal 2). There is no obvious answer at this point because no one really studies that question taking account of the frameworks of this site and innumerable variables in play. Land use inefficiency is a huge problem and as this is addressed through many of the initiatives presented on this site, it creates the possibility of returning agricultural land, in certain regions of the country not subject to urbanization pressures, to naturalized landscapes. The shift to sustainability will also create more biodiversity on farms, but ideally certain regions of the country, especially where landscape fragmentation has created more biodiversity problems, need to convert agricultural land to less managed landscapes. The US has extensive experience idling agricultural land, creating "conservation reserves" (cf. Hellerstein et al., 2015) and this experience can inform Canadian strategies to naturalize agricultural landscapes on a larger scale if the data so warrants. From this is created the possibility of more habitat for wild species.
[i] McRae, T.A. et al. (eds.). 2000. Environmental Sustainability of Canadian Agriculture: report of the agri-environmental indicator project. AAFC, Ottawa.
[ii] From Downes, C.M., and Collins, B.T. 2003. The Canadian Breeding Bird Survey, 1967–2000. Catalogue No. CW69-9/219E. Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada, Ottawa. http://www.cws-scf.ec.gc.ca/publications/notes/219/cont_e.cfm
[iii]. Pretty, J. et al. 2000. An assessment of the external costs of UK agriculture. Agricultural Systems 65:113-136.