Farmers urged to take responsibility for defining sustainability

Farmers, processors and marketers had better come up with their own “sustainability” measures and branding or others will keep doing it for them.

That theme became common during the Manitoba Protein Summit in September, even though sustainability itself was not a main focus of the official program.

“We need to be demonstrating to those consumers in a way that’s tangible and that is easy to understand, otherwise somebody’s going to come in and try to fill that void,” said James Battershill, a meat alternative entrepreneur who was also former executive director of Manitoba’s Keystone Agricultural Producers.

“There’s an enormous amount of confusion out there and an enormous number of independent product labelling schemes that don’t necessarily serve the consumer very well … and certainly don’t serve processors or primary producers in any meaningful way.”

Wrestling with the definition of “sustainability” could take up full conferences trying to define it, and that has been evident at recent agriculture, food and farming conferences.

However, it is a key concern with consumers around the world, and plant protein providers are keenly aware of that. At the Manitoba Protein Summit, a picture emerged of various parts of the farm-food-grocery supply chain working toward proving sustainability without having full definitions created yet.

“A big thing for me is supporting local (producers,)” said Sav Bellissimo, Federated Co-operatives’ store brands manager.

Last year FCL bought 16.4 million kilograms of local produce, up from nearly zero only eight or nine years ago. Sourcing food closer to the consumer is part of how his company sees itself working toward something that could be described as sustainable.

Adam Dyck of Warburton’s, the huge British miller that uses a lot of Canadian wheat, said Canada’s food products fit well into what consumers are demanding, but they might not yet know much about that.

“Canada really has a great story to tell,” said Dyck.

“We probably could do a better job of providing this (story).”

The viability of the supply chain has begun creeping into public notions of sustainability, Dyck said, which is healthy.

We talk about everyone in that value chain being in business for the next generation,” said Dyck.

“That’s sustainable.”

With demands from consumers and processors for farmers to prove that their products are “sustainable,” farmers should be trying to gather data today.

There’s far more to sustainability than single, crude measures such as carbon emissions or greenhouse gases. Many factors are involved in farming and food systems.

“Machine-learning and big data analysis can really help us move forward with the interconnectedness of all these variables,” said James House, head of the University of Manitoba’s food and human nutrition program.

“When you talk about sustainability, it’s not a single number.”

Efforts to define and prove sustainability are already underway in farming and food. Initiatives such as the sustainability roundtables for the beef and crop sectors are already bringing farmers, processors and marketers together to form whole-system approaches.

Connie Tamoto of Cargill said that’s a big commitment for her company, as well as its own endeavour to improve its beef production sustainability up and down the supply chain.

“We’re committed to achieving a 30 percent greenhouse gas intensity reduction” across the company’s vast North American beef operations.

Farmers are working inside many of these initiatives and systems already.

Jack Froese of the Manitoba Canola Growers Association said his members and board have high hopes for what farmers can achieve.

“We’re trying to set lofty targets,” said Froese.

Sustainability might be a nebulous term today, but those involved in the plant protein food chain are already tackling it, from many directions.

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