Fraser Forum

Canada’s agriculture sector boasts outstanding environmental record

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Canada’s agriculture sector boasts outstanding environmental record

Canadian primary agriculture is a critical economic sector that employs more than 241,000 people and contributes more than $31.9 billion to Canada’s economy. And in addition to its economic relevance, the sector’s environmental performance is far better than many competing high-income OECD countries.

Broadly, Canada ranks 14th out of 34 countries on a wide range of environmental measures (including agriculture) that relate to both human health and the protection of ecosystems. With a score of 69.9 out of 100, Canada’s overall environmental performance is above the OECD average score of 65.5.

Some of the top environmental concerns with respect to agriculture are the excessive use of fertilizers, namely nitrogen and phosphorus, and the intensive use of pesticides. Specifically, the runoff from fields where there has been an overapplication of fertilizers can lead to harmful effects on both air and water quality.

Similarly, pesticides employed in agriculture can present dangers to both the environment and human health, including water pollution, the deterioration of habitats, and reduction in biodiversity. To measure the impact of these factors on the environment, a recent study uses two measures—"nitrogen-use balance” and average use of pesticides.

Nitrogen-use balance estimates the potential surplus of nitrogen on an agricultural system by calculating the difference between the nitrogen inputs entering a farming system and the nitrogen outputs leaving the system (the uptake of nitrogen for crop and pasture production). Overall, the lower the nitrogen surplus, the better the management of nitrogen resource for agricultural production.

Out of 32 countries, Canada ranks 3rd on this indicator with a score of 92.4 out of 100. Only Iceland and Australia have lower nitrogen surplus and perform better than Canada. With 23.3 kilograms (kg) of nitrogen surplus per hectare in the period from 2010 to 2019, Canada’s performance is much better than the OECD average of 65.4 kg/hectare over the same period. The worst performer is South Korea with 204.9 kg of nitrogen surplus.

Pesticides, which serve to defend crops against pests and diseases, may also be hazardous to humans, depending on the amount and means of exposure. In general, countries that employ fewer pesticides are more environmentally aware and responsible when treating their crops.

Between 2010 and 2019, Canada used an average of 2.05 kg of pesticides per hectare of cropland (kg/ha), ranking 14th out of 34 countries and receiving a score of 87.1. Moreover, Canada’s average use of pesticides remains well below the average of 4.2 kg per hectare. Top performers were Iceland with an average use of 0.02 kg/ha, Sweden (0.66 kg/ha), Norway (0.88 kg/ha), Estonia (0.91 kg/ha) and Lithuania (1.12 kg/ha). The bottom five countries were New Zealand, Netherlands, South Korea, Japan and Israel.

Overall, Canada's environmental record compares favourably with the wealthiest, cleanest and most developed countries in the OECD. The agriculture sector, in particular, deserves recognition for its commendable environmental practices.

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