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Win the right battle – for the sake of food

Not only is the food we eat bad for us, but the practices that produced it are unsound too. Or so goes the message that too many consumers get too often from our mainstream media

The science is clear. “If you look at Western Canada and you look at a four-year crop rotation that starts anchored by a pulse crop at the front end, I believe that’s one of the most sustainable farming systems in the world,” says John Oliver, president of Maple Leaf Bio-Concepts.

Many of the loudest, harshest voices on farm sustainability, however, are from would-be “experts” who focus on so-called Frankenstein foods and Monsanto in particular, drowning out the messages coming from growers.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve sat with people who have no connection to agriculture other than they get three meals a day, and they’ve got an opinion about Monsanto,” Oliver laments.

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Oliver says the arguments he makes about the advantages of glyphosate and how many fewer passes over fields it’s meant — and the positive impact this makes from a carbon point of view — too often fall on deaf ears.

Nicole MacKellar, manager of market development with the Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) calls the bad light shed on agriculture unfortunate.

“We care greatly about our environment,” MacKellar says. “One of the things that we’ve realized as we’ve gone through this sustainability work is we do have a lot of great things we’re doing, here in Ontario and across Canada. But we haven’t done a great job of sharing that story.”

Denis Trémorin, director of sustainability with Pulse Canada, acknowledges the heightened consumer scrutiny into the food they buy.

“There’s a shift going on in terms of a new marketplace demand for sustainable products. And some of this is information coming down to the field and farm level,” says Trémorin.

“We understand sustainability has become a large topic,” adds MacKellar. “Almost every day we’re hearing about a new program being put in place or a new company coming out and making these public declarations about wanting to source sustainable raw ingredients.”

GFO, along with a group of companies and growers’ associations, has joined Pulse Canada in the Canadian Field Print Initiative, with the objective of replicating the success of the U.S. Field to Market program.

“Can we develop a tool that enables our industry to respond to market demands for sustainability information at the farm level, and can we make this as easy as possible and as low cost to our supply chain,” were the principles behind the initiative, Trémorin says.

Taking a page from the U.S., a homegrown calculator has been developed that allows growers to determine the sustainability of their production practices. Basic input information includes farm location, type of equipment and duration of field operations. Based on that data, the calculator provides performance measures on land use efficiency, soil erosion risk, energy use, climate impact, and soil carbon release.

“The calculator itself is an Excel-based tool where growers can input their crop information,” Trémorin says. “We’re specifically focusing right now on fuel use and fertilizer. We go practice by practice in the field. It’s not too onerous a process.”

Fertilizers are farmers’ most costly input and they’re what Trémorin sees driving the calculator’s value. “If you’re more efficient with your greenhouse gas emissions, it means you’re more efficient with your fuel use or your fertilizer use. So these are the types of outputs we want to share with growers in a workshop setting.”

A survey Pulse Canada conducted showed over 60 per cent of Prairie farmers were applying the same rate of fertilizer on all their canola and wheat fields. With a background in soil science, Trémorin realizes that may not be the optimum approach.

“There are a lot of questions whether precision agriculture is the way to go, but I think one solid effort is, can we at least get precision down to a field scale so you’re applying the right rate of fertilizer to the right field?… I think there’s some refinement there that’s going to help drive more profitability on the farm.”

General Mills is very much invested in the U.S. calculator and its equivalent in Canada. “It wants to apply this to its oats supply chain in Canada and use it as a verification tool to prove that the oats it’s buying from Canada, which is its only oats supply chain in North America, are sustainable,” Trémorin says.

While there may be opportunities to apply the sustainability calculator to niche markets where customers will pay extra, Trémorin indicates that proving one’s system of production is sustainable will be a coming requirement.

“Often the food industry is saying this is an expectation we have of the supply chain and we’re not going to be paying for it,” Trémorin says.

Besides making the calculator as easy for the supply chain to apply, the initiative is also seeking existing data to leverage, importing it into the calculator to make the process even less onerous.

Field testing has provided the initiative 150,000 acres of data from 500 fields from about 35 farmers.

“We’re expanding the work into Ontario this year. And we want to do five regional pilots this year so that would be a minimum of 100 growers we want to participate this year. We can probably get more than that,” says Trémorin.

Field to Market is targeting 20 per cent of U.S. commodity crop acres — equivalent to 50 million acres — in its supply chain sustainability program by 2020. The Canadian initiative, however, hasn’t gone so far as to peg how many acres it wants in its database yet.

The Canadian program has Growing Forward 2 funding until the end of 2017 at least, Trémorin says. By then, they hope to have developed a web-enabled tool that any grower can access for free.

“Because once you’ve built this thing, I think the industry associations can keep it alive,” Trémorin says, adding they would be interested in ensuring they own the data and that it doesn’t fall into hands that don’t have farmers’ best interests in mind.

To further spread the message that farmers are conscious of the environment and that their methods are sustainable, GFO is also working through the national, multi-stakeholder Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops.

“What we are working on right now is a large communication piece which will include a website and brochure that will highlight some of this information, not only to our customers who are purchasing our grain, but also to the general consumers as well,” MacKellar says. Highlights will include information about crop rotation, environmental farm plans, precision agriculture technology and nutrient management plans. “Through this roundtable, all of us can share those best practices that we’re doing within each of our provinces and develop that consistent communication message.”

The roundtable also allows its members to identify the areas that need improvement and implement programs that are going to be the least cumbersome on farmers.

“What we want to do is develop effective resource tools that will allow our farmers to meet these new mandates retailers are asking for, but at the same time not be a larger burden to our farm operations,” MacKellar says.

GFO is also actively involved in a number of other sustainability programs, including the Sustainable Agricultural Initiative, the Roundtable on Responsible Soy, and the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Strategy.

“Definitely there’s maybe some areas we could improve on, but I think for us here in Ontario and the rest of Canada, because we have a lot of infrastructure in place and programs that allow us to be sustainable, we are ahead of some of our competitors who maybe don’t have quite as sophisticated an infrastructure put in place for it,” MacKellar says.

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