Can sustainable agriculture practices offer a direct line to Europe?

Sustainability programs offer assurance to European buyers, but they can mean more work for producers

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Mention the word “certification” to farmers and all they hear is “more paperwork.”

But Grain Farmers of Ontario says such programs really spell improved market access. In fact, they will be critical to reaching important markets, such as the European Union.

The good news is sustainability programs have already been enjoying some success in Canada.

Why it matters: Meeting sustainability criteria is becoming an important marketing edge in the agriculture and food sector. However, diversity among buyers, and individual consumer perspectives mean certification initiatives must be flexible.

Grain Farmers’ and SAI

The Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) platform is one global sustainability initiative. This platform and its sustainability criteria were collaboratively developed by Nestle, Danone, and Unilever and have been present in the European Union since 2002. Members now include the likes of Cargill, Coca-Cola, DuPont, Heineken, Tesco, plus 101 others. The goal is to promote sustainable production through practices that reflect environmental, economic, and social needs, while acting as a networking opportunity for agri-food stakeholders.

The comparatively long history and presence of so many large global companies prompted Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) to join the organization in 2013, says Nicole Mackellar, manager of market development for the commodity group.

Nicole Mackeller.
photo: Supplied

“It’s the leading food and drink sustainability initiative around the world,” she says, adding that SAI is not commodity specific.

“They take a whole-farm approach. We know most of our farmers are growing multiple crops in a given year, so we wanted to take that whole sector approach.”

Currently, GFO sits on a number of SAI committees, including those related to arable crop production. Mackellar says they are often the only farmer voice in those committees. GFO participation allows the organization to further develop relationships with other food and beverage companies, while communicating how Ontario farmers can provide sustainable grain for the global market.

Efforts to foster grain markets in Europe were another key reason for GFO’s membership. European end-users, says Mackellar, are focused on verifiable sustainability criteria and many are part of SAI.

“When we first started looking at sustainability, the majority of demands were coming from European consumers,” she says. “We looked at tools and resources that could be used, SAI was of interest because a lot of Europeans were involved, it was well-known.”

Overall, Mackellar says the EU is an important market for Ontario grain producers, third behind the United States and domestic markets, and one which, until recently, was importing one million tonnes of both corn and soybeans from Ontario each year. With recent and ongoing trade wars, however, soybean exports have been almost entirely diverted to China. That may change again this year as the Ontario market for soybeans in China has dried up with demand for pretty much any other Canadian crop.

“We want to make sure the EU remains a viable market source,” Mackellar says. “The United States is doing a lot of promotion in the EU, including on sustainability. We want to focus efforts showcasing Ontario grain is sustainable as well.”

She adds SAI involvement might, in addition, help Ontario grain farmers access the large feed market in the United Kingdom post-Brexit.

Definitions of sustainability

The ability of platforms like SAI to educate and assure consumers that production practices reflect their wants is an important consideration, says Mike von Massow, chair in Food System Leadership with the Ontario Agricultural College, as well as associate professor of food agriculture and resource economics at the University of Guelph.

Overall, von Massow believes certification initiatives like SAI are a positive thing, if executed correctly. However, developers and those implementing sustainability criteria should be flexible enough to account for the diversity of wants and demands from the marketplace.

Some buyers, for example, might have expectations regarding herbicide use or layer-hen housing that go well beyond the developed standard. Sustainability criteria for those supplying such buyers will have to reflect those differences.

“Validating a practice that is not meeting consumers’ expectations isn’t creating value,” he says.

“We have to be willing to accept that degree of diversity that’s happening everywhere. If not, we run the risk of watering it down to the degree that it’s not meaningful for consumers.”

Von Massow adds it’s important to not overlook general consumer skepticism regarding corporate-driven sustainability standards. While precompetitive co-operation initiatives like SAI have significant support from industry, he says, consumer apprehension can still be a complicating factor.

Impacts on the farm

Mackellar says SAI has little impact on day-to-day farm operations. Farmers can participate directly by completing a Farm Sustainability Assessment — an online self-assessment tool, which she says is a central component of SAI. This involves farmers answering a questionnaire evaluating their farm practices based on environmental, economic and socially focused factors.

The FSA questionnaire was developed with the help of its members including suppliers, farmers, academia and external stakeholders. The FSA continually goes through refinement to ensure the material is relevant today but also in the future. Currently, work is ongoing to refine the FSA from version 2.0 to 3.0.

Mackellar also says SAI has a third-party verification component, which farmers must acquire if they want to make public claims about their sustainability assessment results (the review involves checking to make sure the answers provided in the voluntary farm assessment are accurate).

GFO worked with the Canadian Seed Institute to formalize the national organization as an accredited SAI verifier in 2018.

“We’ve always said we want to respond to market demands as opposed to pushing things onto the market,” says Mackellar. “Compared to United States we’ve not been using it as a marketing tool because we don’t want to place an unnecessary demand or burden on producers.”

Livestock and the long game

For Christoph Wand, livestock sustainability specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, GFO’s long-standing involvement with SAI is proof the organization has “played the long game” in terms of market development.

SAI is not the only sustainability platform in use, he says, but it is the largest one with the largest players. If Ontario grain producers are going to sell in Europe, buyers will be looking for SAI criteria.

Christoph Wand.
photo: Supplied

“The reality is if we’re going to build a made-in-Canada or Ontario solution, that’s the one it’s going to have to align to if we’re going to ship internationally. It’s all about critical mass,” says Wand.

In addition to a Crops Working Group, SAI features a Dairy Working Group, as well as a European Roundtable for Beef Sustainability.

But in Ontario’s livestock world, Wand says SAI is “virtually unknown.” However, this is not necessarily because people have not been paying attention. He says the platform does not have materials or projects specific to sectors like swine and poultry, so it’s understandable farmers and stakeholders in some sectors are unaware.

“We’re just coming up to speed,” he says. “I see no fault or missed opportunity… knowing everything we know now, it becomes the thing to bet on. Everything is going to align with SAI.”

Sustainable agriculture initiative

The Essentials

“Sustainability” defined: SAI defines sustainable agriculture as, “the efficient production of safe, high quality agricultural products, in a way that protects the natural environment, improves the social and economic conditions of farmers, their employees and local communities and safeguards the health and welfare of all farmed species.”

Developing criteria: Practices considered to support sustainability, as well as those that don’t, are collaboratively determined by SIA members. This includes industry, such as farmers and suppliers, academic representatives, as well as other experts working in specific sustainability-related fields. These determinations translate to Farm Sustainability Assessment criteria, which is in its second edition.

SAI promotes agricultural practices that:

  • Ensure reliable supply
  • Future-proof production
  • Meet new market demands
  • Reduce risks
  • Create value
  • Tackle economic challenges
  • Address social issues
  • Mitigate climate disruption
  • Safeguard biodiversity
  • Improve animal welfare

Canadian members currently include:

  • McCain Foods
  • Algoma Orchards Ltd.
  • Grain Farmers of Ontario

About the author


Matt McIntosh

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.



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