It has been a really tough ninety days if you are a die-hard believer in the need to develop a code of practice for grain production in Canada.
Although other agricultural sectors have had national codes for years, the concept has really struggled to gain support with grain farmers on the Prairies in and outside of the consultations.
After talking to people involved in drafting the code, farmers in favour, farmers against, crop commissions feeling unheard on their concerns, and stakeholders who are indifferent, it’s difficult to see how this concept moves ahead until a better justification can be explained, or years pass and circumstances change, allowing a fresh restart of the entire process.
Based on several conversations, there is no real clear path or understanding of how Responsible Grain would actually be parked, but I think it’s becoming likely, based on these reasons:
There does not appear to be a silent majority
On many issues it can be difficult to gauge support of a policy issue as it’s human nature for one side to be much more vocal than the other. I do not believe that Twitter is representative of all farmers, but social media sentiment appears heavily weighted to the “no” side. If we look at the consultations, the vast majority of responses have been negative. If there is a silent majority that supports the code, they have abstained from supporting their cause on social media and in the consultations. On this point alone it’s difficult for provincial crop commissions, national commodity organizations, and individuals alike to push the initiative ahead. An unanswered question is whether an improved second draft would overcome the negativity and increase support or reinforce the same displeasure. Regardless, it appears the “yes” side has major ground to recover to even get to a 50/50 split.
No visible, vocal champion
Related to the first point, the “yes” side has had no real inspirational leadership to drum up support beyond what appears to be a small fraction of the grain farming population. I believe that part of the reason for this is an assumption farmers would easily see value in the concept and support it. In the early rollout, farmer apathy and silence was judged to be support, or at least not opposition.
No clear quantitative justification
A landslide of “no” support and no real champion are combined with a lack of tangible quantitative reasons to support the “yes” side. This is initiative is lacking a “why” that will gain farmer support. Many grain farmers have questioned which export customers were asking for this idea, who was pushing for Canada to make this claim, and what would Responsible Grain mean for increased exports or domestic demand or grains and oilseeds? Examples have been provided, but they have not resonated. Groups such as Cereals Canada have said customers are talking about sustainability claims, but this has failed to attract farmers to the idea. I think one of the reasons for this disconnect is that trade issues have been so impacted by politics instead of quality as of late. Sustainability does not feel like a primary trade issue at this current time.
There is no McDonald’s
All of the above issues I believe could be overcome if you had a McDonald’s-like food company to connect all the dots. This is exactly what happened with the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef to push it over the finish line. Instead, grain farmers have been promised “if we build it, they will come,” which for many farmers feels like a leap of faith for nothing but added costs and possibly more regulation. Without a major food company, processor, food retailer, or export market saying that “we will buy more or pay more for Canadian product if you can prove sustainability,” farmers will not see enough value.
Not enough political will
At the end of the day, after talking to many farmers and industry stakeholders, I am not convinced that many feel like this is worth the battle that appears to be in front of the “yes” side. I have had conversations with multiple provincial crop commission and national organization officials who have stated something along the lines of “this initiative is not very high on my priority list,” or “we have more significant files to work on.” Many farmers have mistaken quiet farm organizations as hiding their support, while I get the perception some organizations are seriously questioning the process behind the scenes. Check-off organizations in Saskatchewan and Manitoba are facing increased checkoff refund requests over an issue that is challenged for support. And if farmer participation in the code is low, the entire exercise loses value in terms of the aggregate sustainability claims, which may also reduce the incentive for organizations to use political capital to get it across the finish line.
Looking more broadly, there are some parallels with the proposed Clean Fuel Standard, in that the CFS is another sustainability-focused initiative that faces some farmer opposition, but there quantitative arguments, processors are onboard, and there is visual farmer support to balance the opposition. The other comparison to the CFS I will make is that many support biofuel development broadly, but the details of the program are still up for debate. Responsible Grain suffers from a lack of support in broad context and in terms of the detailed modules provided to date. To push policy forward, you have to at least have support of the broad context or why even pursue support of the details. This gets back to the need to sell the “why” first.
Could a code of practice be successful in the grain industry? Possibly. There is definitely interest in sustainability and social responsibility from other players in the supply chain, but in the current political environment and for the reasons given above, I believe that Responsible Grain will be proverbially parked in the trees eventually. The big question, then, is will it ever be pulled out again and why?