Canada’s role in feeding a thirsty world

On April 9-10, my colleague Joanna Barrington (WWF’s manager of strategic partnerships) and I will be attending the 2nd Canadian Food Summit – an event hosted by the Conference Board of Canada to explore key challenges and opportunities in the agri-food sector. The Summit will feature some of the leading authorities and experts in the food sector in Canada and from around the world, and provide participants with a unique opportunity to help shape the development of a Canadian Food Strategy, slated to be launched at the end of 2013.  As we get closer to the event I thought it worthwhile to share some perspective from WWF on water and food in Canada.
Water Eric

© / WWF-Canada

Globally, agriculture is by far the greatest user of fresh water.  On average, it takes about 1 litre of water to produce 1 Calorie of food.  With the world’s population expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050 and food demand projected to increase by 70% during this period, managing water and other resources efficiently to ensure food security is without a doubt one of the single biggest challenges facing current and future generations.
Given Canada’s vast land, water and resource base, it’s not surprising that our country is often included in the list of countries that could potentially boost its agricultural production to help feed the world.  Water in particular is often cited as a key strategic asset that could provide Canada with a competitive edge in its ability to meet growing international demands.  While it’s true, based on national level statistics, that Canada is among the world’s water wealthy countries, water is local and its distribution and use varies significantly across the country.  For instance, 85% of Canadians live along the border with the United States, but 60% of Canada’s renewable supply of water flows north, away from major population centers, areas of agricultural production and industrial hubs.  The disparity between water use and availability is particularly pronounced in some of Canada’s most productive agricultural regions.  Not to mention, the picture of fresh water in Canada becomes even more complex under climate change projections that predict changing patterns of precipitation and water availability, and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including floods and droughts.
In many respects, Canada’s agri-food sector is well positioned to develop and expand its reach, and indeed WWF believes our country should play a greater role in feeding the world.  However, with water being such a vital ingredient to the production of food, it is critical that we gain a better understanding of the health of Canada’s freshwater ecosystems in order to develop the sector responsibly and ensure that it does not come at the expense of our cherished lakes and rivers.  To that end, there needs to be greater integration between food strategy and water policies at provincial and federal levels and a strong sense of how this comes together at watershed scale where food is grown and where water flows.