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Change is in the air for food sustainability

There are many innovative products and services available to Canadian crop producers that could help improve sustainability.

However, the global food sector is struggling to find ways to reward growers who adapt sustainable technologies and techniques.

Big food companies have made public commitments to source ingredients that are better for the environment, and more opportunities are expected to arise for farmers to capitalize on this trend.

Kenneth Zuckerberg, senior analyst at Rabobank, said the environmental impact of any business is under scrutiny by investors, and large food companies are looking to clean up their image.

“I think we are moving towards that pay off for improved labelling and better transparency,” he said.

“We’ve hit a tipping point where being green actually makes green.”

Canadian farmers can benefit from the emphasis on sus­tain­a­bility. Crops here require fewer pesticides and have a smaller carbon footprint than some other countries, especially when pulses are included in rotations.

However, it’s difficult for food companies to demonstrate this advantage and Canadian growers don’t get a premium for crops compared to those from less sustainable regions.

“It has to do with how we’re growing, and no-till systems. We have carbon sequestration in our soils and we are also efficient with our fertilizer use,” said Denis Tremorin, director for sustainability at Pulse Canada.

Since the federal government announced its national carbon strategy, farmers in many regions fear what it will mean to their bottom lines.

They point out the sustainability strides already made in the agricultural industry and argue that a national carbon program will do little to reduce carbon emissions.

Tremorin said if the goal is to reduce carbon, there are better ways than a tax, which penalizes growers but doesn’t offer a path to make improvements.

“The burden doesn’t always have to be on the farmer’s back. If we scope it out, there are opportunities throughout the supply chain. The food system itself is causing issues. It’s not just the agricultural system,” Tremorin said.

Canadian growers aren’t being compensated for the progress they’ve already made, he added. He also said sustainability measures would be more effective by targeting food systems rather than agriculture.

“What you’re going to see with costing, with pricing carbon in the agricultural system, is an incremental gain, which may not be that significant at the end of the day. Because in the current environment we are already seeing those incremental gains,” he said.

“Whereas if you shift the focus on food, for example, you could see a lot bigger gain quicker. For example, if you start to reformulate foods with products with a lower environmental footprint. This is where Canada has the advantage on products that have low environmental footprints, not just with pulses, but with other crops.”

Food companies feel pressure from investors and customers to become more sustainable, but many struggle to reconfigure their business models, including their ingredient supply chain.

There are also few legislative incentives for food companies to improve sustainability.

In specialized markets, such as organic and gluten-free oats, food companies have established supply chains that must show their specific production techniques.

There are also a host of sustainable grower programs that track and attempt to improve sustainability of the supply chain but no industry-wide standard.

Jessie VanderPoel, who heads the sustainable grower program at Grain Millers Inc., said there are parallels to the early days of the organic sector.

“A lot of people who have been in the organic industry for a while before me tell me that this is just like when it started for organic. It was confusing and there were so many different standards out there until it got sorted out. But organic is a little bit different because you can get a certification, whereas with sustainability it’s really hard.”

She said measuring sustainability is more about the process of becoming sustainable than any set achievement.

Each farm has different challenges, so the sustainability program she manages at Grain Millers is a farmer-centered approach.

Growers fill out questionnaires, which Grain Millers then enters into its data matrix. Each year, the farmer’s goals and benchmarks are documented and reviewed to gauge the sustainability plan.

VanderPoel said she gives preferential treatment to growers who participate in their sustainable grower program.

“I do buy for a mill down in Iowa, and I do buy organic wheat and barley and rye out of Saskatchewan. I can tell you that I do give preference to who gets those contracts. If they’re in the program, they get first crack at them, just as a thank you for doing this,” VanderPoel said.

Grain Millers customers do not require information from the sustainable growers program to lock in sales, but Vanderpoel expects that will change.

Food companies may want sustainability claims on their products, but they must also back the claims made on the label.

In the end, shifting the world’s food systems toward sustainability comes down to who will pay for it.

“When you look at where most of our exports are going, especially where they are being shifted towards Asian markets, none of those countries, whether it is China or Indonesia or India, they are not asking for this,” said Tremorin.

That makes it tough for the industry to know how much to invest.

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, the regulatory system can have a huge impact.

“We’ve seen this with biofuels, the smarter ones are basing their strategies around carbon emissions. On the biofuel side, you need to reduce a certain amount of emissions from standard diesel fuel. So basically, you try to find your food stocks that reduce your emissions the most,” Tremorin said.

The challenge is to also figure out how to give preferential treatment for farming techniques that achieve positive environmental outcomes, he said.

Food policy has to be part of the discussion. In 2015, an advisory committee for two U.S. government departments — agriculture, and health and human services — included evidence-based recommendations on environmental sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The report said a healthy diet is not just a balanced diet, it’s also a sustainable diet.

Discussions are underway in Canada on where sustainability may be added to the food guide.

Food companies also have to worry about competitiveness when making decisions based on sustainability.

It could mean higher costs so some food companies, such as General Mills, are instead working within existing supply streams to reduce emissions.

General Mills is participating in a Canadian Field Print Initiative (CFPI) pilot project funded by Agriculture Canada and industry partners to get a representative sample from the oat-growing regions where they source product.

The CFPI is meant to help the Canadian agricultural industry become more efficient through the use of tools that measure environmental performance.

One of the tools is the Canadian Field Print Calculator, which requires basic information on farming practices, soils and climate to model a crop’s estimated sustainability based on four indicators: land use efficiency, energy use, climate impact, and soil risk.

Tremorin said there is a groundswell of interest for information on these measures.

“General Mills is working with a group of farmers, and they are working with Patterson and with others to see how they can get the type of value they need from the value chain, that you can’t get from a general commodity perspective,” he said.

There is a similar field calculator being developed in the U.S., but it doesn’t include every crop.

Improvements are said to be coming but the problem remains with different jurisdictions using different programs to measure sustainability.

Before funding for the calculator runs out in 2018, Tremorin said there a goal to integrate it into existing software.

He said it’s crucial that monitoring programs are harmonized at a national, regional and farm level in a way that meets international and company specific requirements.

“We are working with this very problem at the Canadian roundtable for sustainable crops. That’s really the crux of the work over there is to figure out how to harmonize this process for the Canadian Industry.”

In the meantime, the piecemeal landscape of sustainability programs struggles forward.

Farmers used to be able to satisfy their customers with high quality products, but they will now be asked for information on how their food was produced.

“People want to know the back story about how their food is grown. And if we’re not at the table telling that story, we’re on the menu,” Vanderpoel said.

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