National environmental farm plan urged

Summit chair says national plan will help demonstrate sustainability and ensure market access

OTTAWA — Farmers and industry stakeholders meeting in Ottawa last week say it’s time for a national environmental farm plan.

Just how broad that plan should be, however, is up for discussion.

Twenty years after the first EFPs were implemented in Ontario, followed by the rest of the provinces by 2005, delegates to the first national EFP summit said the plans are valuable and have been widely accepted.

They cover entire operations, provide resources for continuous improvement and the adoption of beneficial management practices and were developed with producers for producers, said summit chair Erin Gowriluk, policy manager at the Alberta Wheat Commission.

“We can begin to position a national plan that demonstrates alignment with sustainable sourcing requirements here in Canada and around the world,” she said.

“We’ve provided farmers and ranchers with a credible tool that will ensure market access now and into the future.”

Work will now begin on just how to make the regionally delivered programs more national in scope.

However, there is also the question of how EFPs fit into broader sustainability schemes.

Several speakers said too many schemes are promoted by companies, organizations and industries.

Eric Ritchie, a sustainability manager at McCain Foods, said the company started its potato sus-tainability initiative because it wanted a single plan.

“Our grower base, ourselves included, were under audit fatigue,” he said. “We’ve asked some farmers to have three audits in a year, or four.”

He said the cost and time involved were too great.

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Theresa Bergsma, executive director of the Manitoba Corn Growers Association, said she has spent time on Canadian on-farm food safety and traceability initiatives and has heard all this before.

“We worked hard on this and it sits on the shelf,” she said.

“Both of those things are rarely used.”

Bergsma questioned whether bulk exporters such as the grain and oilseeds industry need to develop a sustainability scheme or whether it could be “one page in an EFP booklet for those who really need it.”

Ritchie said that would likely depend on the export market.

“I do think that a national EFP is a different piece of that discussion,” he said.

“That consistent national base line is a must, whether you’re exporting or not.”

Grain Growers of Canada president Gary Stanford said he was struggling with the idea of a national plan as a grain farmer.

“Was there a carrot you dangled?” he said.

“How did you motivate to get farmers on side in the first place?”

In an interview, Stanford said he understands grain farmers need to get in front of the issue before the market and consumers do it for them.

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Many have done EFPs, but the broader issue isn’t necessarily well understood.

“It’s like we know this is going to come, and I’ve been trying to look through some sustainability groups at how this is eventually going to work through,” he said.

“Is there some kind of a mechanism that the farmers could be on side with which wouldn’t be too onerous on them? Maybe there’s some way we can work with the government on this so if there’s upgrades on this to be done we can work with some of the Growing Forward programs.”

Stanford said it’s important the farmer voice be heard so consumers understand that farmers are working on this and the result is farmer-friendly.

Summit co-host Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said farmer acceptance is key, but consumer pressure is real.

“I think that has led people to realize if we can brand Canada on a national basis of doing things that are sustainable in agriculture, then its going to position us well not only in domestic markets but international markets,” he said.

He said the current EFPs deal with soil, water and pesticide storage but could be broadened to include sustainability issues such as agricultural labour. The plans are generally designed in modules, and not every module would apply to every farm, he said.

“It’s about designing something that works well, that’s simplified, but addresses key concerns,” Bonnett said.

A survey done at the end of the one-day summit indicated widespread support for developing a base line national standard that provinces would have to meet.

However, respondents were split on the importance of on-farm verification within that national standard.

Fifty-six percent said it was important, 16 percent said it wasn’t and 28 percent were unsure.

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A steering committee will now move forward to devise a work plan and meet with provinces and stakeholders.