Land is one of the most critical inputs for producing any crop, including canola—and changing land use patterns could impact this valuable resource. The loss of prime agricultural land to other land uses can lead to long-term impacts on food supply and the Albertan economy.
LAND IS SHIFTING OUT OF AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTION
Many Western Canadian cities have evolved from agricultural economies, and therefore best quality farmland is usually found in and around major cities. This can result in reduced access to quality farmland as city populations expand. Based on the Land Suitability Rating System developed by Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, almost 52 thousand hectares of the top three classes of land were taken out of agricultural production between 2011 to 2020. Most of this loss was from a 40-thousand-hectare expansion in urban infrastructure and 25-thousand-hectare expansion in rural residential development (see Chart 1). While this reduction was partially offset by bringing roughly 32 thousand hectares of lower quality land into production, the total agricultural land in production was still reduced and downgraded to lower quality soil.
LESS LAND, LESS PRODUCTION, LESS FOOD
As agricultural land shifts to less suitable soils, this could have a major impact on crop yields and food availability as land productivity drops. Between 2011 to 2020, Alberta canola production stagnated around 5.7 million metric tonnes and there has been a noticeable decline in production since the 2017 peak of 6.8 million metric tonnes (see Chart 2). While advances in technology have helped to lift production, the loss of prime agricultural land has dampened production and stagnated yields over this period.
SOLAR PUTS ADDITIONAL PRESSURE ON AGRICULTURAL LAND AVAILABILITY
The strain on crop production from weather variability is compounded by government regulations and land demands from urban and industry growth. Much of this recent industry growth in land demand comes from new renewable energy projects. While farming can continue around oil and gas wells and wind turbines, once solar panels cover the land there is very limited opportunity for crop growth based on their current setup. That is why large initiatives could have such a negative impact on farmland by potentially removing hundreds of acres from production for the next 50 to 100 years.
Furthermore, without clear and consistent rules for reclamation of green energy projects and well- designed bonds, landowners will likely be left with the burden to clean up these projects at their end of life and could further put at risk the chance of reclamation.
A COMPREHENSIVE STRATEGY IS NEEDED TO SECURE FARMLAND AVAILABILITY
Economics involves allocating scarce resources to meet various needs, and land is a vital yet limited resource facing growing competition. The optimal choice is to allocate land to its highest value use. While to many, agriculture might not seem to be the top value in the short run, as land is diverted away from agriculture for extended periods and in some cases permanently, constrained food supply and increased demand through population growth will ultimately expose the value and importance of agricultural land. Furthermore, choosing renewable energy and urban development before agriculture could damage soil and worsen food supply problems for future generations.
These complex land use challenges require a comprehensive strategy that not only looks at the value of competing land uses today, but also the direct and indirect impacts of various land uses over time. Land use frameworks and regional plans do this by prioritizing and allocating land to various competing demands. While four (Peace Region (Lower and Upper), Red Deer Region and the Upper Athabasca Region) out of seven regions covering Alberta have not started the planning process, the South Saskatchewan Region (in which agriculture is most dominant) indicate the importance of agriculture and resolve to limit farmland conversion and fragmentation.
However, stronger messaging is needed to preserve the best land in Alberta for future generations to grow crops. Even incremental changes over time can lead to structural changes that affect the economy including crop production and distribution. That is why new industrial projects should also undergo an agricultural impact assessment prior to approval, weighing the impact of the cumulative loss of land to agriculture.
INNOVATION IS NEEDED TO DRIVE COEXISTENCE
The goal is to preserve agricultural cropland while acknowledging the importance of various industries and urban development—and further research is imperative. Some European vegetable farms have already integrated solar panels above shade-tolerant crops and wide-spaced vertical panels that can accommodate tractors.
Similarly, the Prairie region could explore a sustainable coexistence of agriculture and solar power by, for example, modernizing the traditional summer fallow practice. Instead of leaving land barren, mobile solar units could cover the uncultivated field and rotate seasonally. With a bit of Albertan ingenuity, an innovation like this would diversify farmers’ operations, generating both power and food.
WITH PLANNING AND INNOVATION, THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT
Sustainable land use and coexistence of various industries are essential for Canada’s future, but all of it takes effective planning. With its natural resources, Alberta has the potential to lead in both food and renewable energy production, enhancing the quality of life for all rural and urban populations.
By Bijon Brown,
Senior Policy Analyst