Sustainable Food in Canada – Backgrounder

Towards Sustainable Food in Canada – Backgrounder

The Reality

As a country, we are setting ourselves up to miss the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets we committed to under the Paris Agreement. (1)

The Paris Agreement requests each country to outline and communicate their post-2020 climate actions, known as their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). (2) Each climate plan reflects the country’s ambition for reducing emissions, taking into account its domestic circumstances and capabilities. (3)

Canada’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) commit to emissions reductions of 30 percent from our 2005 level by 2030.

Pathway to Canada’s 2030 Target (4)

emissions trend

A recent report from Environment and Climate Change Canada shows that with policies and measures in place as of November 1, 2016, total Canadian GHG emissions are expected to reach 742 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 e/year in 2030. This is 219 MtCO2 e/year in excess of the target level of 523 MtCO2 e/year. (5) What’s worse is that independent studies show Canada’s climate commitment of 523 MtCO2 e/year by 2030 is inconsistent with a fair approach to reaching the global Paris Agreement targets. (6)

“Canada’s climate commitment in 2030 is not consistent with holding warming to below 2°C, let alone limiting it to 1.5°C as required under the Paris Agreement, and is instead consistent with warming between 3°C and 4°C:  if all countries were to follow Canada’s approach, warming could reach over 3°C and up to 4°C. This means Canada’s climate commitment is not in line with any interpretation of a “fair” approach to the former 2°C goal, let alone the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C limit.” (7) – Climate Action Tracker

The Government of Canada has proposed a plan called the Pan-Canadian Framework (8) in order to meet its 2030 emissions target. With this framework emissions reductions will come from the following sources:

  • New regulations on HFCs, heavy duty vehicles and methane;
  • New measures for electricity, buildings, transportation and industry;
  • Additional measures such as public transit, green infrastructure, technology and innovation and stored carbon;
  • Purchase of carbon allowances (credits) from California.

Emissions Reductions from the Pan-Canadian Framework (9)


As highlighted in the above info-graphic, the Pan-Canadian Framework fails to address one of the most important emissions sources and that is the controversial topic of what we put on our plate. Globally, livestock production is responsible for 7.1 billion tonnes (Gt) of CO2e a year of GHG emissions. This is equivalent to tailpipe emissions from all the world’s vehicles. (10) In Canada, agriculture accounted for 59 MtCO2e of our emissions in 2015, equivalent to about 8% of our total GHGs for that year. (11)


As a major producer of livestock and consumer of meat and dairy products, Canada must do its part to reduce emissions from this often ignored sector. We can achieve this in several ways. One option is to adopt more sustainable agricultural practices, and another is to simply consume less meat and dairy. As a country, we already consume more than the recommended healthy limit of these products. (12)

How Do We Address Agriculture and Climate Change?

Any food policy that aims to address climate change must emphasize the need to reduce consumption of highly polluting foods such as meat and dairy. (13) Unfortunately, meat and dairy continue to be staple foods in the average Canadian diet. (14)

Annual GHG Emissions from the Average Canadian of Meat and Dairy Consumption in 2016 (15)

annual food emissions

Many Canadians are unaware of the magnitude of change required to meet our GHG reduction targets and how our current meat and dairy consumption affects the feasibility of achieving these targets. (16) The Federal government has hinted to addressing these connections between food and climate change. We are highlighting three initiatives here – Canadian Agricultural Partnership, Canada Food Guide, and a Food Policy for Canada – to show how current federal policy related to food addresses climate change.

Canadian Agricultural Partnership

First, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is working on the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP). This partnership is a five-year, $3 billion investment by federal, provincial, and territorial governments to strengthen the agriculture, agri-food and agri-based products sector. (17) One of the six priority areas for CAP is Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change. The intention of this priority is to help the sector reduce its GHG emissions, protect the environment, and adapt to climate change by enhancing sustainable growth while increasing production.18

In June of 2016, federal, provincial, and territorial Ministers of Agriculture endorsed the Calgary Statement to kick start the Canadian Agricultural Partnership.19 This statement included a commitment to ensure the agricultural sector play its part in Canada’s efforts to halt climate change. (20)

“Support for environmental sustainability initiatives under the Next Agricultural Policy Framework will help the sector to address agriculture’s impacts on Canada’s natural resources, reduce GHG emissions, and mitigate and adapt to the anticipated impacts of climate change (for example, changing growing conditions, extreme weather events, reduced water availability/quality, soil degradation and new and increased pests and disease outbreaks).” – The Calgary Statement (21)

Canada Food Guide

Second, Health Canada is overhauling the Canada Food Guide for the first time in nearly a decade. A revised version of the Food Guide is scheduled for release in 2018 and it is anticipated to strongly favour plant-based proteins over meat and dairy. (22) This is a very important move forward considering our current dietary choices – particularly preferences towards red meat – are a leading contributor to climate change. (23)

Globally, total emissions from livestock represent 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. (24) Research has shown that when this information is known, people are more likely to choose sustainable options over polluting ones. (25) This is why experts and advocacy groups like Food Secure Canada have been calling on the federal government to address the sustainability of certain foods in the forthcoming revision of the Canada Food Guide. (26) Pointing to examples from numerous countries like Germany, Qatar, Brazil and Sweden, that have included sustainability principles in their own food guides, experts say it’s due time for Canada to follow suit. (27) Ensuring that the federal government promotes sustainable food choices will be essential in driving consumer choices in the right direction. A shift in consumer choices would then be expected to drive more sustainable food production.

A Food Policy for Canada

Third, numerous federal departments are involved in the development of A Food Policy for Canada. (28) This initiative will work to address issues related to the production, processing, distribution, and consumption of food. (29) The way our food is produced, processed, distributed, and consumed – including the losses and waste of food – can have environmental implications, such as GHG emissions, soil degradation, and water quality. (30) The government has made conservation of our soil, water, and air a priority in the development of this food policy. We also need to make the availability of nutritious, safe food a priority. Not all Canadians have access to healthy diet options. The government has noted that more must be done to improve the affordability and availability of food, particularly among more vulnerable groups, such as children, Canadians living in poverty, Indigenous peoples, and those in remote and Northern communities. (31)

On and Off Farm Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (32)

So, are we making progress?

Although the initiatives described above are promising, a strong commitment by the federal government to address agriculture related emissions is far from guaranteed. Governments can become trapped in a cycle of inertia: they fear the backlash of intervention, while low public awareness means they feel less of a need to intervene. A strong commitment to climate action in Canada’s food and agriculture policies will require those of us concerned about the worsening climate crisis to act as a watchdog and put pressure on the government to act.

It is up to us to ensure the federal government resist powerful industry lobbies who are more interested in profit than the health of people and the planet. Unsustainable agricultural methods have been hugely profitable for large corporate players in the agricultural sector for decades. These powerful interests are now actively working to water down food-related actions to address climate change. (33) Specifically, lobby groups for the meat and dairy sectors are up in arms over indications that Canada’s next food guide could discourage the consumption of beef, butter, and cheese and encourage a move toward more plant-based diets. (34)

The federal government has an opportunity to tackle one of the biggest contributors to global warming: the food we eat and produce.

When asked what contributes to climate change, most people think cars, airplanes, and factories. What hardly comes to mind is the food we eat. (35)

Scientists have known for decades that what we put on our plates is contributing to climate change via land use change, fertilizers, gases from animal digestion, fuel for agricultural machinery and product transportation. (36)

Scientists and policy experts alike have been telling us the solution: our diets and the methods we use to grow and distribute food need to change if we are to keep GHGs below the threshold of catastrophic and irreversible climate change. (37) Like every other sector of the economy, difficult but necessary changes will be required to make our diets more sustainable.

Two major changes will be required:

  • We need to substantially reduce our consumption of polluting foods, especially our consumption of meat and dairy.

GHG emissions from producing meat protein are considerably higher than from producing plant protein. (38) Around 75% of the world’s agricultural land and 23% of its arable land is used to raise animals due to the need to grow crops for animal feed and use pastures as grazing land. In 2015, Canadian agriculture accounted for more emissions than industrial processes, while gases produced by livestock during digestion accounted for 42% of these emissions. (39) As the world population grows and becomes richer, the demand for food is expected to increase by 60% or more by 2050 according to the United Nations.40 The demand for food has led to global expansion of farmland at a rate of about 10 million hectares per year during the last decade. (41) Much of this cleared land is – or was – tropical rainforest. When the rainforest is cut down, GHGs are released and the ability of the land to absorb and store carbon is greatly reduced. (42)

  • We need to reduce the amount of food waste we currently produce.

We can make major cuts in GHG emissions if we undertake serious efforts to stop food waste. As a country, we wasted 40% of the food we produced in 2013, costing us $31 billion. This is the equivalent of 2% of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) for that year, and higher than the combined GDP of the 29 poorest countries. (43) What’s incredible is that 47% of this food is wasted by the consumer once purchased. (44) This is an incredibly inefficient use of resources. Not only is food wasted, but so is all the water, energy, labour, and capital investment used to produce it, not to mention the additional GHG emissions that are produced when the food ends up in a landfill. (45)

Breaking the Silence

Many governments around the world have remained silent on the connection between food and climate change. Here in Canada, our own government has yet to publicly acknowledge that our diets and the way we produce and distribute food need to change. It’s time to break the silence.

While many people are already eating more responsibly, and some farmers are moving away from livestock farming to produce plant-based proteins, these positive changes are not happening at the scale and speed required to avoid irreversible climate change.46 After all, the global demand for meat alone could virtually guarantee that international aspirations to limit warming to a safe level are not achievable.47 It’s widely acknowledged by experts that government intervention will be necessary to adequately address the problem.48

Thankfully, there are opportunities for our government to take leadership on this issue. The federal government has committed to working with provincial and territorial counterparts to reduce emissions from agriculture. Development of the Canadian Agricultural Framework, a new Canada Food Guide, and a Food Policy for Canada all provide an opportunity for the government to make a serious commitment to address the food related emissions leading to climate change. Now is the time to invest in solutions.

Federal progress on climate change has in the past been a story of disappointment, with GHG emissions continuing to rise since our first Canadian climate action plan in 1992.49 We cannot afford to waste more valuable time and resources on half-measures that will only postpone and increase the cost of the changes that are needed. Canadians expect their government to do what is right on this issue and break the cycle of inactivity that has plagued previous government efforts.

What Should the Government Do?

  •   Acknowledge the science and the severity of the problem;
  •   Perform environmental and climate impact assessments on the agricultural sector to determine its long-term sustainability;
  •   Develop a large-scale national program and a set of rules to move our agricultural sector away from unsustainable practices and excessive meat and dairy production;
  •   End agricultural subsidies and research grants that are worsening the problem;
  •   Encourage the widespread adoption of sustainable diets through a comprehensive government campaign that reaches all Canadians and that is considerate of cultural appropriateness;
  •   Lead by example and send a clear market signal by ensuring public institutions use their massive purchasing power to buy sustainable food options;
  •   Integrate sustainability principles with policies and programs that encourage dietary change (i.e. Canada’s Food Guide);

Take action

Easy ways for you to adopt a sustainable diet right now include reducing your meat and dairy consumption as well as reducing your food waste. Each of these actions will in turn reduce the overall demand of food products that have damaging affects on the environment. The major culprit for greenhouse gas emissions is livestock farming for meat and dairy production. Greenhouse gas emissions from meat are considerably higher than from plants. By reducing the number of meals you eat in a week that contain meat or dairy products you can make a huge difference.

Notes and Definitions:

CAP – Canadian Agricultural Partnership

GHG – Greenhouse Gases

GtCO2e – Gigatons of CO2 equivalents

LULUCF – Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry

MtCO2e – Megatons of CO2 equivalents

NDC – Nationally Determined Contributions


  1.  UNEP, 2017. The Emissions Gap Report 2017. Available at
  48.  Sources – UN document, Chatham House, etc, Food Secure Canada, etc.