The world faces unprecedented food shortages as global demand for nutrition is set to double by 2050. Canada is one of very few countries that can expand its agricultural exports in a significant way. This presents Canada with a major economic opportunity and a significant responsibility.

To capitalize on this opportunity and help feed the world, we must invest in our agri-food sector in an intentional, responsible and effective way, recognizing fresh water as an essential input in agricultural production. Without water, there are no crops, no livestock, and no agri-food industry.

This means Canada must implement strategies typically associated with the world of finance – leverage (maximizing the productivity of limited fresh water) and arbitrage (allocating water to a preferred mix of agricultural production and processing) to ensure water is used strategically and sustainably. Governments and water managing bodies must support and enable farmers and ag-producers so they can appropriately adjust and innovate around water use.

When it comes to water, we have a comparative advantage over much of the rest of the world. Many countries, including some other large agricultural producers, are experiencing severe competition for fresh water resources, as well as declines and/or interruptions in the availability of fresh water during droughts, floods and other disturbances. Water scarcity is reducing their capacity to produce food and threatening to destabilize their economies.

However, Canada’s fresh water endowment is not immune to limits and constraints. Our most productive food growing regions happen to be our driest, and are at risk of becoming drier. If we do not adequately consider the fresh water requirements and impact of agricultural expansion, we may not only jeopardize this advantage, but also put Canadian farmers and the agri-business sector at greater risk.

For Canada to reach its potential to become a long-term competitive player leading the global agri-food market, we must be strategic — making use of a suite of approaches and tools including virtual water and water footprint analysis to help guide decisions that maximize the value of our fresh water resources, and allow us to make cropping and water use decisions and practices best suited for different watersheds.

An appropriate strategic approach will generate jobs, strengthen the national economy, and ensure the health of our precious rivers, lakes and groundwater. We have a tremendous opportunity to create a dynamic, innovative and world-leading agri-food sector, one that makes informed choices, is highly productive, demonstrates resilience and ability to adapt to changing conditions, and supports a healthy environment.

This report aims to inspire dialogue around ways to develop and operationalize a more strategic approach to water use and management in agricultural production. A multitude of actors will need to be involved in this strategic approach, from the local farm level to the multinational food processor. Many of the key actions should take place at a regional watershed or basin-wide scale. However, the primary focus of our recommendations is on the role that the public sector—the federal and provincial governments—can play in enabling and supporting these other actors in applying virtual water approaches and innovative management practices.