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Measuring sustainability

Alberta producer groups are trying out several sustainability standards. Photo courtesy of Canola Council of Canada.

As the demand for sustainably produced foods increases, crop growers will be asked more often to participate in programs that measure the sustainability of their production systems. Canadian initiatives are underway to help ensure these programs work for the marketplace and for growers.

For growers, potential benefits from participating in sustainability measurement programs include maintaining market access, maintaining public trust in agriculture and further enhancing the sustainability of their operations. One concern is the need to do extra paperwork for no extra dollars, when participating in these programs becomes simply a matter of doing business. A related concern is, given the many different programs nationally and internationally, growers might have to meet different requirements for different crops and different markets. Another worry is some programs might have unrealistic requirements for production practices.

According to Karla Bergstrom, policy analyst with the Alberta Canola Producers Commission (ACPC), market access is a key issue. “Two-thirds of the world’s food production is being purchased by multinational companies such as Nestle, PepsiCo, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Unilever and others. They are all working on sustainability platforms and they are looking at having their entire supply chains having sustainability standards in place. Some are working towards verifying their sustainable sourcing by 2016 or 2020,” she says. “Agricultural producers are one of largest suppliers within their supply chains, so these companies need to have their producers on board if they are going with sustainable sourcing.”

Mark Brock, co-chair of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops and chairman of Grain Farmers of Ontario, adds: “Initially there might be potential for a low-level premium, but in the long term, participating in some form of sustainability program is going to be a matter of maintaining existing markets, especially with the European Union.”

Bergstrom points to the value of participating in such programs as a way for growers to improve transparency and maintain the public’s trust. “Farmers are very highly trusted individuals within our society, but some of their farming practices are becoming more scrutinized by consumers,” she says.

“We want our farmers to be able to continue operating with minimal restrictions and regulations. So the concept of sustainability needs to be a priority for farmers to make sure they are maintaining public trust. Because they are good stewards of the land, they are doing a number of things right, and because the farming population is so much smaller than the consumer population, we need to make sure that message is conveyed so farmers can continue to produce the high quality, safe food they have been producing for a long time.”

Brock notes the Canadian crop industry already has many of the pieces in place to meet the standards in various programs for social, environmental and economic sustainability. “For us, social sustainability isn’t too hard to accomplish because we have things like minimum wage standards, health and safety standards, and so on. With environmental sustainability, we’re pretty close to checking all the boxes too. We have to make sure [the program requirements] don’t put us economically at risk as producers, so that is something we keep in mind during discussions around these programs.”

Developing commonality
One concern for crop growers is who decides what these programs require, the validity of them and what is really involved from a producer’s standpoint. “That is why organizations like Grain Farmers of Ontario and the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops are taking a proactive approach,” Brock says. “We want to be engaged with these companies and importers so we can have some influence on what they deem as a worthy sustainability program that they feel comfortable taking back to their consumers, so the program won’t be horribly onerous for our producers.”

Sustainability measurement is a key focus of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops (CRSC). Formed in 2014, this multi-stakeholder initiative includes commodity groups, agricultural input associations, and companies like Cargill and McDonald’s.

According to Brock, the CRSC has a two-pronged approach to sustainability metrics. “One approach is to do some research and fact finding to identify the gaps right now in some of these programs that we’ve been looking at from a Canadian standpoint, gathering ideas around regional differences, and seeing what more work needs to be done. The other approach is to communicate [about sustainable crop production] (a) to farmers, (b) to the value chain, and (c) to retailers, exporters and importers who are looking to source sustainably grown products.”

Part of the challenge for the CRSC, and for individual crop commodity groups, is evaluating the many different sustainability programs, which range from certification of individual growers to determining sustainability indicators on a regional basis.

“It seems lie every quarter there’s a new sustainability program popping up that someone is working on,” Brock says. “Long term, it would be nice if we can get to a Canadian branding of sustainability, and maybe a single program – for instance, if 85 per cent of the needs for a sustainability program could be met with a base program, and perhaps a few additional paperwork items for different crops to address some specific needs. I’m not sure if we can achieve that [given the many different crops and the regional differences across Canada], but it would be good to work towards something like that.”

The CRSC provides a forum for sharing results of activities across the country to assess, develop and implement sustainability platforms. Various efforts are underway already. For instance, a multiagency initiative is developing the Canadian Field Print Calculator; Alberta grower groups are assessing five platforms in the Alberta Crop Sustainability Pilot Project; the Canadian canola industry uses the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification system for canola going into the European biodiesel market; and Grain Farmers of Ontario is leading the Canadian version of the Round Table on Responsible Soy’s certification system because of a European market for sustainably grown soybeans. In addition, the CRSC, the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and other stakeholders have a joint pilot project to develop an approach for identifying sustainably grown feed barley for use in sustainably grown beef production.

Comparing programs
“The purpose of the Alberta Crop Sustainability Pilot Project is to get a really good understanding of the readiness of our producers to incorporate some of these sustainability standards,” Bergstrom says. “Are we ready now? Are there areas that we need to improve on? And how do our farmers rank internationally?”

The Alberta Wheat Commission and Alberta Barley initiated the project, and they brought the Alberta Pulse Growers Commission and ACPC on board. The four commissions are working on the project with Control Union, an international certifying auditor.

They are comparing four international platforms as well as the Canadian Field Print Calculator. “Each platform has slightly different questions and asks for different things. That helps us get a good scope of all of the different types of questions producers could be asked to provide information for,” she notes. “The questions relate to environmental, social, food safety, farm safety and ethical choices on their farms.”

About 50 members from the four commissions, including many directors, are taking part. “For example, all 12 of the Alberta Canola Producers Commission’s directors are taking part,” Bergstrom says. “We wanted to have our directors involved so they can discuss how the whole process went and whether there is an ability to influence some of the policy around these sustainability measures.”

Currently, the participants are completing the necessary paperwork and Control Union’s auditors will be visiting their farms for the certification needed in the international programs. Then the commissions will discuss the results, report their findings to their members and the CRSC, and consider their next steps.


Improving on-farm efficiency

by Carolyn King

The initiative to develop the Canadian Field Print Calculator is another effort that shares its findings through the CRSC. The calculator is an Excel-based tool to measure the environmental footprint of crop operations. Rather than providing a certification system for individual growers, it calculates regional indicators.

Pulse Canada is managing the development of the calculator and other projects of the Canadian Field Print Initiative, which has a membership that includes producer groups, crop input associations, crop consultant agencies, retail associations, conservation agencies and companies like General Mills Inc. The members are working with Serecon, a consulting firm.

According to Denis Tremorin, director of sustainability at Pulse Canada, the calculator emulates work in the U.S. called Field to Market. “ Our contact with General Mills is the chair of that organization, which includes crop input providers, fertilizer associations, food companies, retailers, restaurant chains. They have a Fieldprint Calculator and they’ve created an indicators report, like we have. They started in 2009, and we started in 2011.”  Tremorin has made presentations to Field to Market about the Canadian initiative, and some of the other agencies involved in the U.S. group have expressed an interest in also being a part of the Canadian initiative.

The initial version of the Canadian Field Print Calculator, created in 2012, is for pea, oat, spring wheat and canola crops grown in Western Canada; pilot testing over the last two years has helped refine the tool and build data for regional comparisons.

“We are currently creating our 2.0 version of the calculator. We’re including lentils, durum wheat, winter wheat, flax and soybeans in the west, and we’re expanding into Ontario for corn, soy and wheat,”  Tremorin notes. Eventually the initiative aims to have a national calculator.

According to Tremorin, the calculator has two key purposes. One is to provide data on sustainability indicators requested by the marketplace including: greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, energy use, land use efficiency (related to crop yield) and soil organic carbon levels. The initiative is now developing a water quality metric for Ontario.

The other purpose is to provide data to help growers improve their on-farm efficiency. “As a group of people working on this calculator, we can’t ensure a premium [for growers who use the calculator]; that is up to the market to decide,” he says. “But we can develop a tool that shows value for the grower.” So the calculator compares the grower’s data with aggregated data from other farms (see diagram), and it expresses the grower’s own data in useful ways, like breaking down the energy use data by operation to show which operations use the most fuel.

The calculator asks growers to provide each field’s legal land location (which the calculator uses to determine soil and climate information), crop yield, fertilizer rates and fuel use in all equipment operations, such as seeding, tilling, spraying and harvesting.

“We’re trying to get the information in a way that is as easy as possible for the grower,” Tremorin says. “And we’re giving alternatives so if the grower doesn’t have the information there’s a good backup source of information. For instance, if you don’t know your fuel use, you can provide the horsepower of your unit and the amount of hours you spent in the field, and then the tool calculates the fuel use.”

As well, the initiative is working with companies like Farmers Edge and Agri-Trend to integrate the calculator into their software. Tremorin explains, “For example, over half of the data that our tool asks for is already being supplied within the system that Farmers Edge uses with farms. If we integrate the calculator into their system, a grower working with that company wouldn’t have to input the information twice.”

For growers with concerns that data from the calculator might be used to force them to follow particular farming practices, Tremorin explains the calculator preserves the privacy of participating growers through two approaches.

First of all, the calculator provides the marketplace with the aggregated data of many growers, not the data of individual growers. He explains that companies like General Mills want two types of data. “They want the averaged data – so, wheat from this region has an average of this number. And they want the distribution of the data – so how are the best performing producers different from the average or below-average producers, and why? That information allows the companies to make decisions on how they want to act within the supply chain.”

In addition, the calculator is outcome-focused, not practice-based. Tremorin says, “I think everybody in the supply chain can agree we want to continually move towards a system that is more efficient and more productive. That aligns with the goals of this calculator.”

Growers who want to use the calculator can access it at


June 8, 2015  By Carolyn King


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