Blog: The Wheat Sheaf

Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform

With implementation of the Alberta Crops Sustainability Pilot Project just a week away, last week was good timing to learn more about the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform in Toronto along with industry colleagues from across the country. I represented Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC) along with our Director-at-Large, Kevin Bender, and Region Three Representative, Jason Lenz. The SAI Platform is one of the three certification programs that will be employed as part of the Alberta Crops Sustainability Certification Pilot Project which will see sustainability auditors in farm fields between March 16 and the 27th.

The SAI Platform is the main food and beverage industry initiative supporting the development of sustainable agriculture initiatives around the world. Relevant members of the initiative include Anheuser-Busch, Heineken, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Unilever and McDonalds among many others. Peter-Erik Ywema, General Manager of the Initiative along with Jenny Edwards, Project Manager, joined us from their headquarters in the Netherlands to tell us more about how the initiative has been implemented in other parts of the world and to talk more about a potential role for the program here in Canada.

The feedback from farm groups in the room reflected a desire to see one universal sustainability verification program that could be used by farmers who grow a variety of crops –a program that would certify the farm, not just one crop. Many farmers are familiar with the Environmental Farm Plan (EFP), so naturally there was some discussion about how an existing program, like the EFP, could be used. In many ways the program fits the bill –it’s national in scope, but allows for the inclusion of regional considerationsthrough provincial delivery.

But with sustainability being driven more and more by industry, how can we ensure that the EFP will meet the needs of the likes of Unilever, General Mills and McDonalds? Discussion amongst meeting participants lead to the idea that next steps should include a benchmarking exercise; one that would examine the EFP in relation to industry programs like the SAI Platform. Until we undergo this assessment how will we know if the EFP can effectively respond to the requirements set out by industry? A benchmarking exercise would allow us to make the adjustments necessary to ensure that tools like the EFP address the industry demands facing producers at the farm level. A tool like the EFP offers Canadian producers access to a free verification program, one that if designed, delivered and promoted effectively, could serve as the "one-stop-shop" that producers are looking for while satisfying the needs of a host of industry players.

Industry speakers from McCain Foods and Unilever’s Sustainable Sourcing program suggested that at the end of the day, any costs associated with sustainability certification or verification will ultimately be borne by the producer. And there are no assurances that ingredients verified to have been produced according to the standards set out by the aforementioned companies, will lead to premiums for Canadian producers. And any expenses associated with meeting the sustainability requirements set out by these companies will be viewed simply as a cost of doing business. There are no guarantees that producers who meet these requirements will have access to greater market share. In fact, evidence suggests that these producers will simply be better positioned to maintain their current market share. 

The good news is that the international community has a largely favourable view of Canadian producers and agricultural practices. As a result, brands such as Unilever spend more time trying to gain social license by addressing the dire social and environmental concerns in other regions of the world where they source key ingredients. For this reason, there is still an opportunity for Canadian farmers to contribute to the conversation that will define what sustainable agriculture looks like in Canada. Because after all, who better to determine what sustainability means at the farm level than the stewards who rely on it to provide for their families today and for generations to come.

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