Keeping track: Pollution and agriculture in Canada

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Agriculture depends on air, water, and soil — natural resources essential to life — and pollution affects all three. That’s why it’s so critical to have access to a tracking system of released pollutants like the National Pollutant Release Inventory.

Agriculture combines science and art to cultivate the soil, produce crops, and raise livestock. From this practise, humans can create products to sustain and enhance their life, such as food, fibres, medicinal plants and more.  As such, we come into contact with agricultural products dozens or even hundreds of times a day — which makes them a critical element to our health and wellness.

The agriculture and agri-food sector not only contributes to pollution, but can also be affected by surrounding polluters. Consequently, knowing sources of pollution surrounding farms can help farmers identify practises to mitigate their environmental impacts and protect biodiversity across the agricultural spectrum.

The Canada Agriculture and Food Museum has collaborated with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to explore how pollution tracking can support the agriculture and agri-food sector in Canada. In this article, we will introduce you to the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI).

What is the National Pollutant Release Inventory?

The NPRI is a dynamic database that tracks and maps the quantities of air, water, and land pollutants produced by industrial processes in Canada. A number of the emitted substances are deemed safe, as they are processed through filtration and recycling to reduce their concentrations, while others may be toxic or harmful to the environment in higher concentrations.

Since 1993, the NPRI has been collecting information from Canadian facilities every year and disclosing it to the public. Facilities include businesses, industries, and institutions. If they produce and release specified chemicals in significant amounts, they must report quantities, location of release, activities, and more.

Map of facilities reporting to the NPRI for 2017, by industry sector

It may surprise readers to know that over 320 substances were tracked from more than 7,000 facilities in 2017 (see map)[1]. The NPRI data shows an overall reduction of pollutant releases in the last decade. Between 2008 and 2017, pollutants released to the environment decreased by nearly 21 percent.

A public database that supports pollution control measures in Canada

Canadian citizens, policymakers, environmental and health scientists, industry leaders, and non-profit organizations can use the NPRI data for a wide array of purposes (see image below)[2]. Researchers seeking to explore pollution trends and understand their impacts can access historical data, in order to identify pollutant sources and estimation methods.

How the NPRI helps inform decisions on protecting the environment

Facilities can also disclose if they prepared or implemented pollution prevention plans and activities. Tracking pollution prevention practises helps ECCC to follow up on industry efforts to reduce pollutant emissions such as particulate matter, mercury, dioxins and furans. According to 2017 NPRI data[3], industrial pollution prevention was primarily achieved through:

  • training or improved operating practices;
  • spill and leak prevention; and
  • equipment, materials, or process modifications.

Tracking pollution's impact on agriculture  

The NPRI can support researchers, policymakers, and farmers in their agricultural research and planning, and help them make informed decisions. It can also highlight where and when pollution might be more important.

For example, some pollutants released in the air — such as sulphur dioxide — can affect agriculture.  Researchers and producers can learn about trends, locations, and quantities of these emitted substances to look into potential causes of crop failure in their area (see dashboard below as example). Studies have shown that crops exposed to air pollutants are at risk for inhibited growth, reduced yield, and developing visible markings on the foliage or premature death of the plant[4].

The future of tracking pollutants and potential applications of the NPRI

Anyone can access NPRI online resources and zoom into facilities nearby to see the main pollutants emitted in their area. You can browse submitted reports by facilities, comb through datasets, and visualize data using Google Earth maps. The NPRI can be a very useful tool to a number of users (e.g. educators, students) to complement environmental datasets from other tracking databases.

NPRI data was used as a component to help researchers develop predictive models on the impacts of pollution. Pollutant release tracking data can provide users with the information required to support decisions related to agriculture and food production practises and appropriate infrastructure development. For instance, this data can inform the land history of nearby properties and assess the suitability for urban agriculture or green infrastructure, urban soil remediation, or coping strategies. In this way, these groups may be able to address the sustainable use of agricultural resources and help protect these resources — such as water and soil — in the future.

[1] Source: Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory Data Highlights 2017.

[2] Source: About the National Pollutant Release Inventory – Tracking pollutants in Canada

[3] Source: Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory: Data Highlights 2017

[4] Source: Effects of Air Pollution on Agricultural Crops


We would like to thank Alicia Berthiaume, Ivan Lee, Annabel Chung and the Environment and Climate Change Department’s NPRI team for providing training, data, graphs, and assistance to write this article. We thank our external reviewers for their feedback. We also thank our editor, Sonia Mendes, for her help to get this article ready for publication and translation.

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Sarah I.K.M. King, Eng., PhD

Sarah I.K.M. King brings a wealth of entrepreneurial, academic, and industrial experience to the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum. In her role as Science Advisor, she offers strategic advice and guides teams in the establishment of science communication strategies. She also participates in the development and delivery of knowledge transfer, new exhibitions, digital projects, public and educational programs. Before joining the museum, Sarah worked as an agri-food engineer and senior consultant, where she led the foundation of a consulting agency, developed corporate training and advisory services to agri-food businesses and investors, and conducted market research and financial analysis. After earning her MSc in Agri-Food Engineering from Université Laval, Sarah pursued a PhD in Experimental Medicine at McGill University — where she managed several multidisciplinary research projects on the design of novel nutraceuticals with potential against cancer and chronic diseases. She was also a member of an agri-food products committee at the Standards Council of Canada. Within the community, she has contributed her time and expertise to non-profit organizations that promote social safety and well-being, including Community Mediation Ottawa and Educate and Feed Communities Foundation. Sarah loves to spending time with her family, hiking and trying new recipes. With her daughter she enjoys leaning piano and reading books.

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Environment and Climate Change Canada

ECCC informs Canadians about protecting and conserving our natural heritage, and ensuring a clean, safe and sustainable environment for present and future generations.

Environment and Climate Change Canada