By Cam Dahl
I was on a speaker’s panel a few weeks back with a farmer who said he never wanted to hear the word sustainability again. I understand the sentiment but we, as an industry, are going to be hearing that word more and more from customers and consumers around the world.
Farmers shy away from sustainability because they see people who want to shut down modern agriculture. They see more forms, paperwork, and bureaucracy. These are legitimate concerns. But it does not have to be that way.
Canadian farmers have a good sustainability story to tell. I don’t know of a single producer who does not want to turn their land over to the next generation in better shape and more productive than when they started farming. Preserving the air, land, and water for the next generation is the very definition of “sustainability.” But we currently don’t have the tools to tell our story in a coherent way.
The time has come for the grain, oilseed and special crops sectors accept both the responsibility and opportunities that come from concretely demonstrating the sustainability of modern agriculture. In reality, the vast majority of farmers have already adopted sustainable practices. If we are not able to demonstrate this fact those that want to go back to the farming practices of the 1900s will win the hearts and minds of consumers and the long run profitability and competitiveness of grain production in Canada will be in jeopardy.
We do not have to re-invent the wheel to move forward in a proactive and concrete manner. Animal agriculture has long been under pressure to demonstrate good animal welfare and sustainability practices. These industries have responded with the development of Codes of Practice that help define the right (and wrong) way to raise animals in Canada. These voluntary codes provide ranchers and farmers with the tools needed to demonstrate good practices and the ability to defend themselves with scientific backing when agricultural practices are challenged. The grain industries should follow this lead.
What will a Code of Practice for grain production look like? It is critical that the Code’s recommendations use best available most recent scientific studies from accepted sources. Recommended practices should be practical, manageable and consider economic implications. If they are not, farmers will not follow them.
The Code will be voluntary. That means that it will not require farmers to fill out additional forms and paperwork. A voluntary Code can also serve as the foundation of something more robust, such as verified production contracts upon the mutual agreement of willing buyers and sellers. This is a balance between customers who might be looking for stronger verification and farmers who are concerned that we are moving beyond market demand.
How will the Code be developed? Farmers must be directly involved in the development of the Code of Practice. If the Code is going to build the trust of consumers who are interested in the question “where does my food come from” farmers cannot be alone in the room when the Code is developed. The development of the Code must also include scientific expertise, non-governmental organizations with interest in sustainability, customers, and processors. And the Code must be open to public review upon its development and publicly available when completed.
What happens if we successfully do all of this? The development of a defined code of practice and assist in efforts in gaining and maintaining public trust in Canadian agriculture, both domestically and internationally. I believe that there are specific existing market access issues in the grains sector that could be eased by the development of a Code of Practice. This is in addition to alleviating issues that will cause market access and public trust concerns going forward.
Canadian farmers, exporters, and processors will have a concrete tool to demonstrate sustainability to our customers. We will be able to show, with the backing of science, what we are already doing to preserve our land, air, and water. This is a tool to help increase the competitiveness of Canadian agriculture and not a threat to modern farming practices. Further, the development of a Code of Practice will be a valuable tool in communicating beneficial management practices to farmers.
The development of a Code of Practice is going to be a policy discussion within the industry in the coming weeks and months. For example, the Grains Round Table, which includes farm groups, industry and government representatives, recently endorsed exploring the development of a Code through the Canadian Round Table for Sustainable Crops (CRSC). The CRSC will be working to refine the principles around which the Code will be developed and form the Development Committee.
Farmers are members of producer organizations through check-off funds. Your Commissions will have the direct opportunity to be involved in the development of the Code through participation in the CRSC and through national value chain groups like Cereals Canada, the Canola Council of Canada or Pulse Canada. I encourage you to use your farm groups to follow the development of the Code, the potential benefits to your farm and to be heard if you have concerns about the direction being taken. The work on the Code of Practice is just beginning. Now is the time to be engaged.
—Cam Dahl is the president of Cereals Canada and also serves as the chair of the steering committee of the round table for sustainable crops.