Soil and Water Quality Indicators for Agriculture

Between 1981 and 2006, changes to how farms are managed have helped improve the soil quality agri-environmental performance index in Canada’s farming regions. Index results are good, and increasing toward the desired level. In contrast, farming operations are likely having a greater impact on water quality. While still rated as good, the water quality agri-environmental performance index has declined from the desired level.

Agri-environmental performance indices for soil and water quality in Canada, 1981-2006

Agri-environmental performance indices for soil and water quality in Canada, 1981-2006

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How these indicators were calculated

Note: The graph’s horizontal target line corresponds to the lowest index value for the desired category, which is the level Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada would like the soil and water quality indicators to achieve by 2030.
Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (2010) Environmental Sustainability of Canadian Agriculture: Agri-Environmental Indicator Report Series, Report #3.

Since the end of World War II, farming in Canada has changed in response to market demand and new technologies. There are now fewer, but larger, farms in Canada and these farms have more cropland and livestock. Coupled with these changes is an increased  awareness among producers and the public of the pressures agricultural production places on the environment. There is recognition that protecting soil quality ensures a farm continues to produce abundant and healthy crops, and a well-managed farm ensures harmful substances do not enter surface water and groundwater.

The agri-environmental performance indices for soil and water quality focus on how farming affects the environment. The high ratings of the agri-environmental performance indices mean, overall, Canadian farmers are working in a manner that protects the environment. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has set a goal to reduce risks to soil and water quality from farming and to achieve the desired level in these performance indices by 2030.

The soil quality agri-environmental performance index combines information about the risk of soil loss, soil contamination by trace elements, the buildup of salt, and the reduction in organic matter in the soil. At the national level, the index’s improvement has largely occurred through the adoption of reduced-till or no-till farming practices, particularly in the western provinces. In eastern Canada, higher rainfall supports more intensive crop production, which, when coupled with a higher, but declining, reliance on conventional tillage practices, means soils in this region may be more affected by agricultural practices.

The water quality agri-environmental performance index combines information about potential water contamination by nitrogen and phosphorus, bacteria, and pesticides from farming operations. The index’s decline at the national level may be due to several factors. Increased application of fertilizers and manures on farms in recent decades, for example, has increased the chance agricultural nutrients and bacteria will reach water bodies. In areas of higher precipitation, increased movement of water through soils and runoff from the land tend to increase the chance water may contain traces of pesticides.

Related information

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s National Agri-Environmental Health Analysis and Reporting Program

 Theme II: Maintaining Water Quality and Availability of the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy.
This indicator is used to measure progress toward Target 3.10: Agri-Environmental Performance Metrics – Achieve a value between 81–100 on each of the Water Quality and Soil Quality Agri-Environmental Performance Metrics by March 31, 2030 of the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy 2013-2016.