“Just Trust Me” Didn’t Work for Science & Won’t for Farmers, Either

owenGood reasons exist to better understand what sustainability means on the farm – and a lot of them have to do with consumers.

It’s vital for farmers themselves to know how to best care for the land, water and air in which they produce food. No smoke and mirrors. Unsustainable practices mean trouble in the long run.

But farmers aren’t the only ones straining their necks to see what’s happening on the other side of the fence.

Identifying sustainability practices in the entire value chain, starting with farmers, has become an imperative in the industry. It seems everyone wants to know farmers are practicing good stewardship and preserving the environment. Even if people don’t really understand what they see going on in fields and farmyards, they can be told, and shown, that farmers are taking sustainable production measures.

That’s meant food processors, retailers and food service operators also have their antennae up. So do Canada’s better trading partners. They don’t want to be accused of contributing to a domestic environmental ill. Nor do they want to feed their citizens food with a cloud over it.

But how do processors and retailers know who’s being a good steward, and who isn’t? How do they locate and work more intimately with farmers who do — or will — provide the desired soil, water and air characteristics that contribute to sustainability?

Some local food junkies think that seeing farmers’ pictures on food packaging is enough to suggest the food inside is produced sustainably. But this euphoria will end

In a new report, the George Morris Centre, a Guelph-based agri-food policy think tank, says in Ontario the environmental farm plan can be beefed up to provide much-needed sustainability information. For 20-plus years, it says, farmers have embraced the plan as their guide to defining environmental sustainability. The information is basically there; only minimal “tweaking” would be needed to the detailed questionnaire farmers complete, it says, to identify and communicate what is broadly considered sustainability.

Elsewhere I suspect it’s the same story. Other provinces have farm plans too. A BASF-supported survey earlier this year claimed almost 100 per cent of Canadian farmers say environmentally sustainable operations are important to them.

Some local food junkies think that seeing farmers’ pictures on food packaging is enough to suggest the food inside is produced sustainably. But this euphoria will end. Science tried the “just trust me” approach, and failed miserably. Farmers must try something different, and information in the farm plan could be the answer.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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5 Comments

Shaun Haney

Good luck Miles. The word sustainable has a definition that seems to float in many different directions with many far reaching tentacles. Many groups, sides, factions, and areas of agriculture and food are grasping at defining the word sustainable.

Reply
Miles

Your point is well taken,I find it frustrating how everyone dances around the issue

Lyndsey Smith

What is your definition? I think there are several. Sustainable, to me, means profitable — with a long-term plan for managing the land and business so that it continues to be so for the next generation. The interpretation of that definition could mean very different things on different farms.

Miles

Firstly I would think that what the natural world can sustain would be sustainability,beyond that the definition becomes political and therefore polarized

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