Canada’s grain sector is developing a code of practice to build trust with international customers but a food industry analyst thinks it is little more than a smokescreen.
The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops has developed a draft code called the Responsible Grain code.
The voluntary code contains a list of 73 practices farmers can follow to ensure their grains, oilseeds, pulses and special crops are produced in a sustainable fashion.
It was unveiled during the Latin American stop on Cereals Canada’s virtual 2020 Wheat Crop Seminar.
Lane Stockbrugger, a grower from Englefeld, Sask., and a SaskCanola director, told the group of international buyers that the code should give them peace of mind.
“Our promise from Canadian growers to you is nourishing the future through a sustainable approach,” he said.
The code received a ringing endorsement from Adam Dyck, a Cereals Canada board member and head of Canadian operations for Warburtons, the United Kingdom’s largest bakery.
“We believe the code of practice is really needed to change the narrative around food production and to really highlight the good things already happening on the farm here in Canada,” he said in a video message.
Warburtons plans to initially use the code to help give retailers confidence in their decision to buy Canadian grain. In time, the messaging will be expanded to include end consumers.
“It will be a great thing to have in our toolbox to not only defend the use of Canadian grains but also, hopefully, to promote it as well.”
Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, wonders how much faith buyers will put in a voluntary code where there is no registration, no tracking of what is happening on an individual farm basis and no audit mechanism.
“It’s a bit of a dithering approach really. It’s really the Canadian way — you want to please everyone at the same time,” he said.
“It shows some sort of will to become more sustainable but it doesn’t necessarily show commitment.”
Charlebois said buyers and end-use customers want transparency and traceability in the supply chain and the proposed voluntary code doesn’t provide that.
“I just don’t think it’s going to get much traction,” he said.
“You’re basically selling a sunroof that won’t open.”
Susie Miller, executive director of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops, said it isn’t just window dressing. They are providing proof to buyers in the form of aggregate measures of sustainability.
The roundtable has already prepared 12 sustainability reports ranging from soil quality and productivity to working conditions on the farm.
There are all sorts of metrics in the reports showing how the practices contained in the code, that many farmers are already following, have resulted in big sustainability improvements.
For instance, the soil quality and productivity report shows how Canadian cropland has become less susceptible to soil erosion, how farmers are using conservation tillage practices to build soil organic carbon and how 70 percent are using crop rotations “often” or “always.”
Miller said the code was designed to build trust with buyers but it also had to be practical for farmers to implement.
For instance, the committee debated at length whether to attach a number of years to the crop rotation recommendation but in the end it decided that it is really dependent on location and crop choice.
So that recommendation was left as a general requirement to rotate crops to reduce the risk of pests and improve soil health.
The code was also developed with an objective of improving economic sustainability at the farm level.
For example, the requirement to adopt the 4Rs of fertilizer use will help farmers cut costs and increase yields, while reducing runoff and greenhouse gas emissions.
Miller said they plan to seek feedback on the draft code from farmers, industry and non-governmental organizations this winter with the goal of launching the program in spring 2021.
The committee has sent invitations to farmer organizations, processors, crop input providers, food service companies, government officials and non-governmental organizations to provide feedback.
“The questions we’re asking is does it make sense? Is it reasonable? Did we get it right? And also, how much is this going to mean on your operation?” she said.
Ted Menzies, former farm leader and federal minister of state for finance, is heading the committee developing the code.
During a video presentation to the international buyers attending the virtual new crop mission, he answered his own question about why the code is being developed.
“Because it’s time that farmers are actually allowed to show to those who are consumers what we grow on our farm, that we are acting responsibly, that we care about the environment,” said Menzies.
“We are on the ground. We depend on the soil to grow our crops.”
He said it is a way to showcase Canada’s current farming practices rather than introduce new ones.
“We don’t think this is going to create onerous work for any farmers right now,” he said.
“Farmers are acting responsibly.”
Menzies stressed that the federal Responsible Grain code is designed to fit “hand-in-glove” with existing provincial programs, such as environmental farm plans.
“This will not take the place of other programs,” he said.