A new proposed grain code of practice has left some Alberta growers scratching their heads about where it came from, who’s behind it, and why they haven’t heard about it until now.
But that’s not for lack of trying on the part of the group who developed the draft Responsible Grain code of practice.
“Those farmers can’t tell me that they haven’t had a chance to know about it,” said Bentley-area farmer Jason Lenz, who was involved in developing the code.
“You know you’re not going to get to every farmer, but any farmer who’s actively farming should be dialled into what their provincial crop commissions are doing. They’ve known about this for a year now.”
Work on the code — which is voluntary — began in late 2019 and has been led by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops, an eight-year-old organization made up of farm groups, major agribusiness companies, and industry organizations.
But in some quarters, the code only got noticed after the roundtable announced that consultations would take place this winter — with some questioning whether it was being thrust on farmers and would one day become mandatory.
But the code is not burdensome and will remain voluntary, and is only intended to show consumers and grain buyers that the sector produces grain in an environmentally responsible way, said Lenz.
“We’ve been kind of preaching to the choir about how good a job we’re doing,” he said. “Canadian farmers are amongst the most sustainable in the world, but we don’t have a tool that we can show people what we’re doing. We’re all being faced with that every year, whether it’s our own relatives living in urban areas or activist groups that are questioning how our food is grown.”
The draft has seven different sustainability modules, which range from nutrient management to on-farm health and wellness, covering practices that are “sustainable both environmentally and socially,” said Susie Miller, executive director of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops.
“By developing a code that is reasonable and farmer oriented, it allows control for farmers and other industry stakeholders over how sustainability is defined,” she said.
“It allows actual demonstration by being able to say, ‘These are the sustainable practices that are based in science and developed by a broad-spectrum committee from the farming community.’”
Documenting those practices is “a tool… to show our customers that we’re actually growing grains and oilseeds in a responsible manner,” added Lenz.
Lenz was one of four farmers on the committee, which also has reps from industry, academia and government and was led by Ted Menzies, the former politician, CropLife Canada CEO and farm leader from Claresholm.
“The real strength of how this code got developed is by including the entire grain value chain, right from farmers to food processors to food distributors to NGOs like Ducks Unlimited Canada,” Lenz said.
“I don’t expect to agree with everyone on everything, but that’s how you get a well-balanced document — by having all those different perspectives.”
But the group was focused on ensuring the code made sense for producers.
Some farmers on social media expressed concern about Ducks Unlimited Canada’s involvement, but Lenz said no one “pushed any sort of agenda.”
“What he did was what we all did — try to bring a different perspective to each and every one of these modules that we went over with a fine-tooth comb,” said Lenz, adding the rep for Ducks Unlimited is also a farmer.
“Sometimes we don’t all agree with what Ducks Unlimited is doing, but it does do some good, there’s no doubt about it.”
Even so, Lenz expects “some push-back” from Canadian farmers on the draft modules.
“We spent a lot of time discussing some of them within our committee to try to make it work for the whole country,” he said. “It was very difficult because there are different provincial regulations that are involved, so we had to meet in the middle on some of them.”
“We’re trying to cover all crops and all parts of Canada, but we don’t know if we’ve got it right, which is why we have the consultations,” Miller added.
In-person town hall meetings were scuppered by the pandemic, but farm groups and crop commissions were consulted and now online consultations are being held. (The sustainable crops roundtable is also giving internet presentations on the code on Jan. 27-29 — go to www.responsiblegrain.ca for more info.)
Once that feedback has been compiled, it will go back to the code development committee so it can rework the modules if needed.
“That’s what the consultation is for — to get it out to the general farming public and make sure it makes sense to them, too,” said Lenz.
But the code won’t require major changes on farms, he added.
“Farmers are already doing a lot of what’s in this program. We’re already doing 90 to 95 per cent of the practices in it because they have an environmental or economic benefit to our farms.”
Lenz hopes a code of practice will “raise up that bottom five or 10 per cent of farmers who could maybe do a little better job.”
It’s also worthwhile for the grain sector to look and “ensure we’re all doing the best job possible,” he said.
“We’re pretty confident that we already are, but we can’t just keep talking about it amongst ourselves. We need a tool like this to send out to our customers and to the public.”