Roundtable explores how to meet ag sustainability demands

Sustainable agriculture has become a hot topic recently as the food sector tries to get on the right side of the issue with consumers.

The agricultural industry is taking the trend seriously.

The most recent manifestation was the pubic commitment that Walmart and several of its Fortune 500 suppliers made to sustainable agriculture goals in late April.

For example:

•    Campbell’s Soup intends to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water use by 20 percent for its five key agricultural ingredients: tomatoes, carrots, celery, potatoes and jalapenos.

•    General Mills plans to expand the amount of farmland in the Field to Market sustainable agriculture initiative by 2.5 million acres by 2015.

•    PepsiCo wants 500,000 acres of farmland in North America to qualify for its Sustainable Farming Initiative by 2016.

Grain Farmers of Ontario director Mark Brock says it’s safe to say this isn’t a meaningless trend, considering that global corporations regularly make announcements on sustainable agriculture.

“We’ve seed trends. I don’t see this as a fad,” said Brock.

“I think this is going to be commonplace because society wants to … feel good about going to the store and buying something that has a label saying. ‘sustainably produced.’ ”

Grain handlers, commodity groups and farm organizations have responded to the trend in Canada by forming the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops.

“What we found, over the course of the past few years, that sustainability is a topic that’s in the heart and minds of consumers,” said Chantelle Donahue, senior director of corporate affairs with Cargill Canada and vice-chair of the roundtable.

“It’s translating back to end users and up through the value chain, without one single definition of what it is.”

Working under the banner of the Canada Grains Council, roundtable members met officially for the first time this winter. They are developing a unified approach to sustainability instead of 20 separate projects for grain, oilseeds and pulse crops.

“Is there a way to have a national forum that we can co-ordinate and collaborate these initiatives, across the value chain, that will minimize the amount of burden (on) producer, grain handler or processor, but still meet end user or consumer requirements?” Donahue said.

As an example, Unilever announced a couple of years ago that it planned to sustainably source all of its agricultural commodities by 2020, including soybeans.  In response, Grain Farmers of Ontario began working on a sustainable soy program to satisfy Unilever’s expectations and sell product into Europe.

Brock said the organization realized it was simpler to tackle sustainability in a co-ordinated manner for a variety of crops and regions rather than develop a narrow approach just for Ontario soybean growers.

“We needed to pull this up a level and have a common national goal or some objectives in mind (so) we’re not reinventing the wheel across Canada with different programs,” said Brock, who co-chairs the roundtable.

Donahue said the Canada-European Union free trade deal, which was announced last fall, is an important consideration because EU customers are setting high standards for sustainable agricultural practices.

However, the deal wasn’t the impetus for the roundtable.

“They obviously are the ones that are a leader, from a sustainability perspective, but it’s broader than just Europe,” she said.

“This work was going on long before CETA was formally announced.”

Donahue said a small number of Canadian farmers are now receiving questionnaires from organizations such as the Canola Council of Canada, inquiring about agricultural practices related to sustainability.

Brock, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 1,400 acres in Ontario, said these kinds of expectations could become a normal aspect of crop production in Canada. The roundtable will need to collaborate with growers to smooth out the process.

“We need to get a feel for how producers are going to react to some of these requirements that we probably are going to see in the future,” he said.

“What’s manageable and what is not manageable.”

Growers shouldn’t view this as an unnecessary task, he added.

“I don’t see this as a burden from a producer standpoint but an opportunity…. There could be market opportunities in countries we don’t participate in now and just the ability to maintain markets.”

Cost will be one of the key questions for the roundtable: who will bear the additional cost to satisfy sustainability expectations and standards?

Donahue said roundtable members believe the entire grain industry, from grower to grain handler to processor, should share the costs.

“One of the core focus areas is that the cost and value of sustainability needs to be shared throughout the value chain,” she said.

“We see the solution to this as an all encompassing value chain solution, not one that focuses solely on the producer or processor.”

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