A McCain Foods pledge to by 2030 use only potatoes from farms that practise regenerative agriculture is an important step, but consumers need to keep asking questions and hold such companies accountable, said an expert.
The overall situation facing Canadians and their food is becoming increasingly worrisome, and not only due to the growing impact of climate change, said Mary Beckie, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta.
Transitioning from what she called “big ag” to more holistic ways of farming isn’t simply about things such as soil regeneration, which is a key part of regenerative agriculture, but more broadly involves re-examining the many ways agri-food corporations and farming affect Canadians, she said.
Problems range from droughts affecting fruits and vegetables grown in California and Mexico, which Canadians rely upon instead of local produce, to vulnerabilities created by the heavy concentration of beef processing. Those weaknesses were revealed through plant slowdowns early in the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
“The reality is these big players like McCain, we’re dependent on them and they are part of the system, and we can’t say that they’re not involved in the transition,” she said.
As one of the largest makers of frozen potato products in the world, McCain Foods recently announced it will be working with about 3,500 growers across five continents to reach its target. Among them are 130 producers in Canada, including 36 in Manitoba and 30 in Alberta, with the rest in New Brunswick.
Examples of practices the company regards as critical include cover cropping and armouring the soil, as well as reducing the intensity of chemical use and looking at alternatives.
As someone who has an interdisciplinary PhD from the University of Saskatchewan focusing on sustainable agriculture and rural development, Beckie said regenerative agriculture has become something of a trendy catchphrase among corporations seeking to attract consumers.
However, it lacks the clarity and rigorous certification processes of organic farming, she said.
“The focus is on improving soil quality — that’s pretty much the essence of it, and using more ecological approaches like better crop rotations and less tillage and those types of things, but it’s not been clearly defined… so I think the devil’s in the details is what some of the concerns have been, and mine as well, just like it was around sustainable agriculture.”
McCain Foods plans to implement three Farms of the Future around the world by 2025, including one in New Brunswick that is already operational, to test regenerative agriculture practices.
The company’s focus on the future isn’t new for members of the Potato Growers of Alberta, said executive director Terence Hochstein.
“Everything that we do in this industry here in Alberta and across the country is based on the future: saving water, saving energy, reducing pesticide use, reducing erosion. A lot of things mentioned in this roll out (by McCain) are things we already do and are currently doing, and will continue to do.”
Among the producers working with McCain Foods is Harold Perry of Perry Quest Ltd. near Coaldale, Alta., who is part of a grower advisory board for the company. He said weeds are a big obstacle, along with fungi and insects.
Although he would like to be pesticide-free “at some point in the game, I’m not sure if we can get there by the end or not.”
Perry is hoping new technologies, such as autonomous robot weeders, will be available by 2030 to provide chemical-free ways of eliminating pests. One particular machine uses photo sensors to scan for weeds, killing as many as 100,000 plants per hour using lasers.
He said regenerative agriculture in some ways is like returning to the farming his grandfather might have practised, but with a modern twist.
If resources are pooled for things such as training and education, “I think the technology is there that we should be able to do a much better job of what our grandfathers were doing.”