While the agricultural sector is an important contributor to Canada’s prosperity, it’s also a major consumer of water resources and, when not properly managed, linked to environmental detriment. Recognizing the growing demand for food worldwide and the challenges of water-related risk, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada asked the Council of Canadian Academies to convene a panel discuss science’s role in better guiding sustainable water management to meet these needs.

Water Canada spoke with Dr. Howard Wheater, chair of the Council’s expert panel and Canada Excellence Research Chair in Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan, to learn more about the Council’s findings—released today in a report titled Water and Agriculture in Canada: Sustainable Management of Water Resources.

Dr. Howard Wheater.

Water Canada: What are some the biggest challenges for Canada’s agriculture and water use?

Dr. Wheater: In Canada and around the world, impacts on environment are presenting some quite difficult challenges, especially around nutrient management. Farmers need nutrients to produce crops—we couldn’t feed the world’s population without them—but, on the other hand, excess nutrients in the environment, such as nitrates and phosphorus, are a huge challenge.

Irrigation is another part of the story. It makes up about 80 per cent of the world’s consumptive use of water, and, while most farmers are their own water managers, using rain and snow for crop production, irrigation and livestock farming are major water consumers and face increasing competition from other water uses.

In the backdrop, there are many uncertainties about the global agriculture industry and climate. We hear about changes in Arctic sea ice, but there are also changes in the Rocky Mountains, which are changing the pattern of flows in rivers here in Canada. At the same time, we expect increased risk of drought. We suggest that there needs to be some careful thought given to potential future scenarios.

The report suggests that more science is needed in five areas—one is improved monitoring, modelling, and forecasting. Can you tell us more about that recommendation?

We’re concerned about need for information about details on climate, water availability, water quality, and use. Some of the information in Canada is great, and some of it isn’t so good. Across the provinces, we use different parameters. And, while many water issues play out in the small-scale, most national water quality monitoring is mostly done in big rivers. It’s difficult to see consistent data.

Information is also weak around how much water we use. In Canada, however, there are some good pilot studies in Alberta in the Milk River, where the provincial government is looking at real-time monitoring so that farmers and regulators can see details of their use.

What are some of the panel’s other recommendations about dealing with water issues in the agricultural sector?

There’s a long shopping list. There could be significant improvement in productivity and resilience to water stress by improved strains of crop varieties and making moves from annual to perennial crops, for instance. There is also a range of issues around what the agriculture industry can do to improve quality of environment. Farmers can implement beneficial management practices (BMPs), such as buffer strips at edges of fields. They can be more precise about targeting chemicals and using them less intensely as a result. At this point, however, we don’t know enough about how BMPs play out in Canada.

To whom does responsibility fall to implement these measures?

I’ve been in Canada for two years, and I’m surprised at the complexity of governance issues. Farmers are managers of their land, watershed organizations are doing great work to identify issues around source protection, and, of course, major responsibilities lie with the provinces and the federal government. Sometimes issues fall to multiple provinces, states, and agencies. It’s challenging.

What have you seen in other developed countries? Are we doing well comparatively?

If you go to other developed countries, they’ve moved very much from production focused agriculture to agriculture that has benefits to society and the environment. There’s more policy based on rewarding farmers for being good stewards of the land. Here in Canada, agriculture affects larges areas and there is lots of potential for farmers to help maintain a healthy environment. But who pays to incentivize those farmers? Very often we’re asking farmers to make changes that will help benefit them and the people downstream, but we have to think about ways to incentivize them to do it.

In the end, the panel is positive about the future of agriculture in Canada, but there are some major issues that require action. We have many opportunities.

Read the full report at scienceadvice.ca.


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