Crop sector starts its sustainability roundtable

As with beef, producers will be asked to document their practices, but carrying the system past the grain elevator may be tricky

The push for sustainability continues — and this time, it’s hit the Canadian crop sector.

“End-users are looking to have a certified or verified supply chain that goes to the farm level,” said Kara Barnes, market development co-ordinator with the Alberta Barley Commission and a best practices specialist with the Barley Council of Canada.

“Just saying that we’re meeting sustainability criteria or indicators is no longer adequate. Customers want proof.”

That’s led to the creation of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops, a forum to advance, report and communicate the sustainability of grain production. The roundtable has been in the planning stages since spring, and will gear its efforts towards specific customers, such as retailers, food-service customers, and feed buyers.

Each has different interests, said Barnes. Some want farm data that measures “sustainability indicators,” while others are looking for verifiable or certifiable programs which have some sort of mechanism for taking corrective action if the indicators aren’t met.

At present, the grain industry hasn’t decided on one way to prove sustainability.

The newly formed Canadian Roundtable on Sustainable Crops is currently looking for ways to define sustainability in the crop sector, says Kara Barnes of Alberta Barley.

The newly formed Canadian Roundtable on Sustainable Crops is currently looking for ways to define sustainability in the crop sector, says Kara Barnes of Alberta Barley.

“We came together in the roundtable to answer that question,” said Barnes. “It depends on what grain market you’re going into. There are grain markets, feed markets, and bioindustrial uses, and they will all have different demands from the end-users.”

The roundtable is looking at different sustainability principles and criteria to develop indicators, and is basing its approach on the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which was started a year and a half ago, said Jason Lenz, the newly appointed vice-chair of the Alberta Barley Commission.

“Part of what it is about is defining what sustainability is going to mean to the crop sector,” said the Bentley-area producer.

“From my perspective, sustainability isn’t new to farmers. Farmers have been sustainable for a few generations… If you’re not sustainable in what you’re doing, whether it’s farming or any other business, you’re not going to be profitable and your business isn’t going to last very long.”

But tracking sustainability will likely mean a new way of record-keeping on the farm, said Lenz, adding he hopes it will be similar to documenting environmental farm plans, which involves an audit every few years.

“I hope it becomes more of a self-assessment for the individual farmer, with a list of indicators or common practices used in the crop industry, so people can make sure what they’re doing is sustainable,” he said.

There is one big difference between grain and livestock — you can’t put an ear tag on grain kernels, and Lenz, who also raises cattle and hogs, isn’t sure how traceability will continue once his crops hit the elevator.

There are a number of templates being developed to prove crop sustainability and six of these templates were presented at meetings in November, said Allison Ammeter, vice-president of the Alberta Pulse Growers and its rep on the Grain Growers of Canada.

Pulse Canada has spent several years working with the “Canadian Field Print initiative,” a Canadian sister to the model used by several large American companies such as General Mills. The Canola Council of Canada has examined the “Carbon Look-up,” while the Barley Council presented on the Feed Barley Pilot Project.

It’s possible that producers will need to record basic information such as fuel and water use on a year-to-year basis.

The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops has a mandate, mission and vision, but not much more is known about the organization. Three key people who are chairing or steering the organization did not return calls for interviews.

The initial meeting in spring attracted about 60 attendees from almost every province, including federal agriculture officials and reps from companies such as Cargill, BASF, and Syngenta; millers; food retailers such as McCain Foods and Weston Foods; and the Canadian Grains Council. Among the producer groups were the Grain Growers of Canada, the Alberta Wheat Commission, and the Alberta Barley Commission.

Membership will be open to grower associations, value chain members, grain handlers and processors, food manufacturers, and non-governmental organizations. Members of the groups have already developed working committees, and terms of reference. Each working committee is in the process of developing work plans. The next meeting will likely be held in March.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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