Ag’s continued push for sustainability

How can the grain industry continue to be sustainable while also meeting the demands of buyers and consumers?

by Taryn Milton

Keith Fournier, a third-generation Saskatchewan grain farmer, sees sustainable agriculture as a three-legged stool.

The first leg is the widely discussed environmental sustainability, the second one is economic sustainability and the third element is social-equity sustainability, he says.

“When I think sustainability, I look at it as environmental sustainability but, in a business, it always has to be balanced with economic sustainability,” Fournier tells Better Farming.

He farms near Lone Rock, Sask. with his partner Elaine Knowlson, his daughter Joelle and son-in-law Shelby White. Fournier and his brother-in-law Gord Stieb assist one another in their individual operations.

The family continues to improve their environmental sustainability by updating their farming practices. The family reduced their tillage, use GPS and auto-steer in tractors, and use sectional shut-offs when spraying and seeding.

All these strategies “help the environment. They also help farmers with our economic sustainability too, as they give us a return into our pocketbooks,” says Fournier.

In terms of the social-equity piece, he equates sustainability with everyone being able to access healthy, affordable food, clean water, fresh air and safe housing. People’s human rights should also be protected.

“As farmers, … we need to find that balance of using tools and technology to produce enough food while carrying the responsibility of ensuring it's healthy and not harming the environment. Leaving a fertile soil for the next generations to be able to grow food is also part of” this work, says Fournier.

While growers and other members of the ag industry have maintained a long-term focus on preserving the continued productivity of farmland, consumers are increasingly interested in these discussions too.

This month, Better Farming connects with Fournier and other members of the ag industry to learn what they’re doing to help advance sustainability, while meeting the consumer demand for more information on production practices. Stakeholders have efforts underway at the farm, ag business and industry levels.

Industry efforts

Many agricultural companies see the opportunity to help farmers work towards sustainability while also meeting consumer demands for the protection of the environment.

“Agriculture is this awesome solution to not only feeding, clothing, and fuelling the world, but also to thinking about how we address climate change. How do we address water quality? And how do we link all those pieces together?” Ryan Sirolli says to Better Farming.

He serves as Cargill’s row crop sustainability director and is based in Minnesota. Cargill provides agricultural risk management products and services and is an international provider of food.

Many of Cargill’s customers deal directly with consumers. Increasingly, these companies want to be transparent with consumers about what happens on farms.

“Those consumer-facing companies have asked how to create more transparency in the supply chain. How do you validate or verify what’s happening on farms?” Sirolli says. Those questions are “helpful as you start to think about consumer confidence and what they’re looking for. They want to know who raised (or grew) their food and how was it done.

“But this approach was a little light on actual impact and didn’t focus on the economic benefits for farmers. So, we shifted our thinking. We focus on how we actually engage with farmers beyond just asking them for information to ensure we help them become more resilient and profitable by adopting sustainable agriculture practices, while driving greater impact,” he adds.

Cargill has worked with Canadian farmers on many environmental and sustainability efforts.

Cargill advising young farmer in Saskatchewan field
    Cargill photo

“At the end of the day, we’re optimizing farmers’ yields and productivity, while minimizing the industry’s environmental impact, specifically around water quality and greenhouse gas emissions. So, we’re trying to stack all the environmental and social benefits together,” he says.

“For example, our agronomists in Canada incorporate 4R Nutrient Stewardship practices into every fertility plan, ensuring 4R compliance. These practices have shown to improve the quality of water, soil and air while contributing to the long-term sustainability of the farm. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved,” Sirolli explains.

The 4Rs of nutrient management refer to the right source, right time, right rate and right place for fertilizer.

Bayer Crop Science is also involved in sustainability efforts at the industry level. Recently, the company launched a carbon sequestration opportunity for farmers in the United States and Brazil. The program will reward producers for generating carbon credits when they adopt climate-smart practices such as no-till farming and using cover crops.

“In my job, I have the opportunity to listen to a lot of people globally talk about what’s happening in agriculture and what farmers should and shouldn’t do. Farmers are oftentimes not at the table for those conversations,” says Andy Knepp. He serves as the company’s head of environmental strategy and industry activation and is based in Morton, Ill. Bayer Crop Science provides farmers with tools in the areas of crop protection, seeds and traits, and digital farming.

“Bayer wants to make sure that, as we work together, farmers actually are at the centre of this, so they have a voice and they’re compensated for what they do,” he says.

Through the program, Bayer Crop Science recognizes farmers’ work in the fight against climate change and provides them with another form of revenue.

Although more time and consultations are needed, Bayer Crop Science staff ultimately want to expand the program to additional countries to help support change on a large scale.

“We’re trying to think about how to scale this so we’re encompassing entire regions of crop production. That's what it’s really going to take from an environmental perspective,” Knepp tells Better Farming.

While the process will be challenging, “we view these challenges as opportunities to develop and innovate,” he adds.

Regenerative agriculture

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concept of regenerative agriculture is at the centre of many recent sustainability efforts.

Regenerative agriculture “is a holistic principles-based approach to farming and ranching that strengthens ecosystems and community resilience,” says Jay Watson.

He serves as the sourcing sustainability engagement manager on the global sustainability team at General Mills, an American-based food company. Watson is based in Minnesota.

General Mills created the Northern Plains Oat Pilot, a three-year regenerative ag pilot program, in 2019. In total, 45 farmers from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and North Dakota are receiving education and training, as well as one-on-one technical assistance.

General Mills Team at Alex Boersch family farm
Members of the General Mills team, as well as supplier partners from Patterson Mills, visit Alex Boersch’s family farm in Elie, Man. - General Mills photo

The producers “will have access to soil health academies, at least annually, to continue their education and understanding of soil health and regenerative ag principles. They’ll also receive-one-on-one coaching from a regenerative ag consultant who has been down the path and, in most instances, is also a farmer,” says Watson.

General Mills covers the costs for farmers to participate in this program and wants to measure its effects over time.

“A lot of (participating) producers want to understand, if I do X, Y and Z together, what changes might I or my neighbour see in soil health over time? A lot of that (analysis) just hasn’t been done yet in regions across North America. So, we’re filling a little bit of a void there,” Watson tells Better Farming.

By 2030, General Mill aims to advance regenerative ag practices on one million acres of farmland.

“Producing healthy, nutritious food that helps producers be profitable (while also) investing in those resources to make them better, more resilient, and healthier long term is really the focus,” says Watson.

Responsible grain

Producers are likely familiar with the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef’s certification framework and the organization’s continued efforts to educate consumers about the beef industry’s sustainability efforts. The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops (CRSC) wants to create a similar code of practice for the grain industry.

CRSC representatives recognized “that a weakness (existed) in the public trust in farming methods,” Ted Menzies says to Better Farming.

He is the chair for the group developing the Responsible Grain document. Another committee works on communication, while a third works on the scientific elements.

Individuals in the Canadian crop industry can ultimately use this tool to show they continuously strive to be better stewards.

Menzies is also a retired grain and oilseeds farmer from Claresholm, Alta. and a former Conservative member of Parliament.

The committees started their work in the spring of 2019. The group is now consulting members of the ag industry for feedback on a draft of the Responsible Grain document.

We want to say to people “Here’s what we’re suggesting. Does this make sense on your farm? Can you apply this on your farm?” Menzies says.

“We're not just going to throw this (document) out there and say, ‘This is the standard. We would like you to adopt these requirements and recommendations for producing crops.’ That (strategy) usually never works.”

The document includes best practices in areas such as land use, soil management and seed selection. The code of practice builds on existing stewardship programs but does not replace them. Participation is voluntary, and farmers will likely be familiar with many of the regulations and recommendations in the document, says Menzies.

“Adopting Responsible Grain practices may not mean a lot of change for some farm operations. Several requirements are regulations or best practices that many Canadian farmers already follow,” he says.

Committee members shared the Responsible Grain document at farm shows and events in late 2019 and early 2020 and received positive feedback.

“I expected some tough questions” at a fireside chat during the January 2020 durum summit in Swift Current, Sask.,” says Menzies. “There were good questions, but not one of those individuals said, ‘Gee, this is a dumb idea.’ Not one, and I was ready for that.”

Industry members seem receptive to this type of code of practice. While the pandemic put the committee’s work on hold, the group will continue collaborating with industry representatives and farmers to finalize a framework that works for everyone, says Menzies.

Consumer demands and producer need

Although consumers are important stakeholders in the discussions about sustainability, they cannot drive the conversation alone.

“No one knows how to take care of the land as well as farmers do. They’ve been doing it for decades, if not hundreds of years. So, we have a real challenge in that what sometimes is asked for under the umbrella of sustainability doesn’t actually produce a sustainable farm,” says Brian Innes.

He is the vice-president of public affairs at the Canola Council of Canada. The organization is based in Ottawa.

As a result, producers and industry representatives must participate in the conversations with consumers, says Innes.

three combines in a field
    Taryn Milton photo

“Our challenge in the grain industry is to ensure we’re having strategic discussions amongst the value chain. Information (must) flow from those who have direct interaction with consumers to the producers who know best what happens on their farms and how to make their farms sustainable for the next five generations,” Innes tells Better Farming.

We must also base industry efforts and changes in the pursuit of sustainability on scientific facts and evidence, rather than misinformation and emotional responses, says Innes.

If we don’t do this, “the system may not be sustainable even though we're meeting what could be described” as sustainable by some consumers, he says.

Farmers like Fournier want to be a part of the conversation and continue to make strides towards sustainability. Producers must have the opportunity to enact changes themselves, he says.

“Farmers are very good at adapting, but if adaptation is pushed on to us and we have to adapt quickly, sometimes there’s pushback,” he says.

“Governments can definitely help (by) supporting farmers with information and (in the process of enacting) changes. Also, if there’s an economic benefit to the farmer, the change seems to happen quicker and with less reservation than if there isn’t an economic advantage.”

In the end, consumers, farmers and other members of the ag industry all want to ensure the sustainability of agricultural production, but everyone must participate in that conversation to make the desired outcomes achievable.

“Sustainability is important for society. It’s important for governments and farmers to be at the table with their value chain partners so they have the best information to position themselves for long-term success,” says Innes. BF

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