THE SUSTAINABLE NATURE OF FARMS IN ONTARIO
the power of consumers to change the marketplace is enormous. Growing public interest in how food is produced means farmers and retailers alike need to prove they are doing business in a sustainable way.
At the retail level, consumers vote with their wallets. They want to know where raw materials come from, what happens during processing and how ‘green’ products are. They are interested in companies that do business in a sustainable way – addressing social and economic as well as environmental conditions. Retailers are keen to do their part to please consumers and support environmentally sustainable products and companies.
For grain farmers, it can be a bit of a challenge to be able to show retailers and consumers their degree of environmental sustainability. “There’s a ‘natural gap’ between farmers and retailers, especially when it comes to products such as grains that move through very long and complex supply chains,” explains Harold Rudy, Executive Director of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA). The association has risen to the challenge of filling this gap, inspired by the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI), a European platform which brought together many corporate food retailers and manufacturers. “It was apparent that the influence of SAI would be world-wide,” says Rudy. “It was a forum that got everyone thinking.”
The OSCIA turned to the Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) program as a way to showcase the environmentally sustainable nature of Canadian agricultural products. The voluntary EFP program was launched in 1992 in Ontario and has been adopted by the majority of the province’s farmers. Each Environmental Farm Plan is unique, but all share a common goal – to improve the environmental sustainability of farming practices. Farmers are challenged to think about their land, buildings and inputs, and they are given tools to assess the conditions on their farm and their current management approaches against best practices.
With funding, the OSCIA formed a steering committee including representatives from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Grain Farmers of Ontario, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, University of Guelph and Loblaw.
“Our starting point was that the EFP is an existing and trusted initiative that can be used to verify or validate environmentally-sustainable farm practices to retailers and consumers,” Rudy explains. “Indicators related to these practices could include nutrient efficiency, soil quality, water quality and quantity, land use, biodiversity, air quality, and pesticide use.”
A report finished in June 2013 outlines the committee’s initial discussions. “There is much to be sorted out as we move forward,” says Rudy, “but progress will be steady. We need to do things like compare the EFP with existing sustainability certification schemes and figure out how to both respect the confidentiality of EFPs but also find a way that information in EFPs can be used for verification.”
Producers have indicated a willingness to share parts of the EFP that would be relevant to their downstream customers. Rudy says there is the potential to develop an ‘addendum’ of the farm plan that would meet the needs of stakeholders, including retailers and consumers.
“In the future, if producers completed their EFP in an electronic format, it would be possible to develop a system that would pull out the relevant information,” he says. “Only these relevant areas would be used, with the producers’ consent, to satisfy the needs of retailers and others.”
Rudy says that, ultimately, it will be the individual commodity groups, in consultation with their partners, who will decide what is relevant and what will satisfy the value chain.
“The needs of various commodities may be quite different; yet if common platforms can be accepted across many commodity groups, it can be streamlined, more efficient for producers and more meaningful,” he notes. “For example, horticulture is quite different than livestock. The requirements for general field crops may be quite different yet again. The EFP, however, is a great start at common ground.”
Further dialogue with food and beverage manufacturers is also required and the awareness of the EFP program has to be increased.
“We found that most of the retail and food service firms we contacted were either unaware of the EFP or had heard of it but were not familiar with it,” Rudy notes. “We also need to understand how information developed from the EFP might be used by food companies. Do they think that cross-country participation is necessary? In that case, there would be motivation to more closely align the various provincial EFP programs. This will all be sorted out over time.”
Investment in this project was provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program (CAAP). In Ontario, this program is delivered by the Agricultural Adaptation Council. Funds and guidance for this research were also provided by Loblaw, via the Loblaw Chair, Sustainable Food Production, at the University of Guelph. •