Adding to the Sustainability Discussion

Looking at a retailer’s view on sustainability, how to start the conversation and its complexities
Karen Dallimore
January 06, 2015
By Karen Dallimore

 Looking at a retailer’s view on sustainability, how to start the  conversation and its complexities

Farmers already know what sustainability is. They live it every day, using practices that ensure the land is there for the future. But now they have to define and defend what it means, to put sustainability into words so their customer can understand, while those customers in turn define their own role in practicing and encouraging sustainable production.

The Canadian Poultry Sustainability Symposium, held October 29, 2014 in Guelph, Ont., was an opportunity for all stakeholders in the poultry industry to add to the sustainability discussion. What are the components of sustainability? What have we been doing already? How do we engage people in the conversation?

Al Mussell, Senior Research Associate with Agri-Food Economic Systems, recognizes sustainability in the farming industry as steeped in culture. During his tenure at the George Morris Centre, an agricultural “think-tank”, and now as an independent consultant, the agricultural economist has gained a broad view of the complexity of sustainability, encompassing environmental, economic and social traits.

Mussell asked: What does farming look like? There are several descriptors. It’s complex. By design, farm policy supports farmers as citizens and farms as small business. There are very few corporate entities in primary agriculture; the social organization of agriculture is unique.

Land is scarce. The best farmland is already in use; there is an inherent advantage in using our farmland more intensively than converting new land into production. Since the 1960’s the only increase in production in Canada has been through increases in yield or food efficiency. Back in his grandfather’s era, people talked a lot about “wasteland” – “now it all has a use,” said Mussell.

Agriculture also has to overcome a lot of uncertainty, from both Mother Nature and the marketplace. In 2012, a pronounced warm spell in Southern Ontario forced the budding of tender fruits that were then wiped out by frost. In 2001 it was aphids that came to eat the soybeans, followed by Asian ladybugs. These weren’t gradual changes, they were episodic, leaving an agricultural production base that Mussell could only describe as “evolving” — sometimes gradually, sometimes not. All of this is happening while serving a trend-following consumer.

As for the consumer, advances in agriculture have benefitted all aspects of society, said Mussell. As farming has specialized and become more efficient, people have been allowed to do other things besides just producing food. We have leisure time and careers, things we simply did not have time for when sustenance was the focus of our daily lives.

So how do these factors matter to sustainability? We need to understand this complexity when making changes to agricultural practices in answer to market signals.

“People have choices; farmers have rights,” said Mussell. “No one can just be told what to do.” What if consumers decide that restricting use of certain agricultural technologies fits into their definition of sustainable?

No one can go in with certainty and insist that elements be added or removed from a system, said Mussell. Take cage-free laying hens, for example. Can we do that? Sure. The birds are able to perform more natural behaviours, but now they fight. Can we accommodate this? Yes, with perches that allow less dominant birds to escape, or baffles to limit the size of the group. Then what about ventilation? Do the birds need different nutrition? Does exposure to litter create pest control issues? All of these factors can lead to higher mortality and we need to account for all of this, said Mussell. We can’t do everything the same and just take out the cages.

Is new technology part of sustainable agriculture? Mussell said his dad probably started scuffling corn with horses, so when a product like atrazine came along, “It was a miracle product.” Was it used too much? “We got resistance — we should have known, but now we do know.” If we take Round up Ready technology out of the production chain, what have we accomplished if higher toxicity products are then needed?

Innovation is more than just duct tape and baler twine. Technology is linked to sustainability but the benefits of technology erode over time. As far as Mussell is concerned, “We absolutely must be developing new technology in anticipation of this.”

Everything is connected; change is not always gradual, nor is it always linear. Sustainability is more that just claims on a package: it must be rooted in the agricultural system we already have, allowing for the continuation of farmers’ rights, adaptation of science in agricultural systems, and the food preferences and cultural shifts of the consumer.

McDonald’s purchases 52 million pounds of chicken and 76,000,000 eggs every year from Canadian farmers. As Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stillwell, their Senior Manager of Sustainability in Canada explained, seventy per cent of their carbon footprint is in the supply chain: are there changes we need to make or encourage to become more sustainable?

That is just one of the questions that has been asked during “a lot of conference calls” as executives try to define what sustainable sourcing will mean to the retailer, said Fitzpatrick-Stillwell. If you think it’s difficult to define sustainable on a farm, try defining it across 121 different countries and cultures around the world.

While they have not yet formulated a plan for poultry, McDonald’s has committed to begin the purchase of Verified Sustainable Beef in 2016. Canada was selected for the beef pilot project that will guide their global commitment; Cargill and Loblaw are partners in the collaborative project that will be used as a learning opportunity to measure, verify and communicate baseline sustainability criteria.

So far they have looked at over 70 potential indicators but will only use approximately 25 for the pilot project, ranging from demonstrating stewardship of natural resources and the environment to supporting animal care, people and communities, as well as improving efficiency and innovation in the production chain.

In 2016, the restaurant will review its sustainable beef goals for 2020 as they travel a journey of continuous improvement. “The rest of our 2020 commitments are firm,” said Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, but they are awaiting the outcomes of the pilot project and several other initiatives globally before determining a 2020 goal for sourcing beef from verified sustainable producers.

All of their espresso-based coffee and a growing portion of their drip coffee is already Rainfall Alliance Certified; fish has been sustainable since 2001, but McDonald’s didn’t leverage that commitment.

McDonald’s wants to maintain significant brand trust with the consumer but they also know that consumer ideals can switch overnight. On the supply side, the restaurant also recognizes the importance of maintaining brand trust with their producers. As a whole, global companies are not trusted, so McDonald’s does look to the credibility of others to say they’re doing the right thing.

An on-line forum called Our Food, Your Questions started a “powerful” conversation with McDonald’s customers, said Fitzpatrick-Stillwell. From the comments they receive, it’s plain to see that their customers don’t always understand more complex issues (“Why are the eggs in the Egg McMuffin all circular?”) but they do understand the power the chain possesses (“You as an industry leader have the power to effect change.”)

“It’s an opportunity and an obligation,” said Fitzpatrick-Stillwell, but the bottom line remains economic as the retail giant tries to stay in what he described as the ‘smart zone’: just ahead of the public – but not too far ahead –while staying profitable.

The Egg Farmers of Alberta are already celebrating the success they’ve had so far in demonstrating sustainability. As Jenna Griffin, Industry Development Officer for the organization explained, they are in the first stage of a journey that started in 2011 when the board began looking at gaps and challenges in the sustainability of their provincial production.

First they went to farmers, and then to consumers, said Griffin, asking them what was important. Farmers wanted less regulatory risks, increased public confidence that would require a strong program to speak out for them, and a good fit with retailer strategies. Consumers wanted freshness and value, animal welfare, and food safety. These factors were already strong.

The sustainability program that has been developed as a result, known as PEEP (Producer Environmental Egg Program), is based on the Environmental Farm Plan (EFP). As an organization they needed a program that was based on education and gradual improvement, with incentive through funding, and one that could meet the needs of the retailer. With regard to the on-farm administration of the program, Egg Farmers didn’t have the resources to engage one-on-one with the producer, explained Griffin, and took advantage of services already in place with the EFP.

There were some gaps that had to be addressed when piggy-backing on the EFP, such as how to segment poultry on multi-commodity farms and the need to use the information that was gathered to speak out to retailers and consumers when the EFP information was voluntary and confidential.

PEEP is still entirely voluntary and takes field staff about half an hour to complete the required assessment. The program has four key components: a producer manual, an assessment form with ten questions and a risk rating, on-farm delivery and a follow up letter or certificate or, if the score is low, recommendations for improvement.

As of October 2014, ninety-five of 155 producers in Alberta have participated – not one has declined so far – and their average score has been 60.39. “We’re in a good spot,” said Griffin. “It’s a good starting point. There’s room for improvement.”

Griffin reports that so far their producers are doing well on the subject of water conservation and bird disposal. The key challenges have been manure storage and energy monitoring. Farms are meeting their requirement of nine months of manure storage but when that storage is too close to the barn they don’t want to use it for flock health reasons. Also, dry manure is being taken from the barns and put outside where it is uncovered, losing nutrients and influencing water quality. As for energy, sub-meters would allow a closer monitoring of usage and spikes.

A perfect score may not be possible, admits Griffin. A 60 is considered a pass, with farmers encouraged to aim for a 70 score. Over time they will be able to use these scores to chart the progress of producers.

In 2015, the Egg Farmers of Alberta will sit down and evaluate what is working and what is not working in PEEP. Are the right questions being asked? Are the questions being correctly weighted? Are there any missing areas? Is more field staff needed? And as Griffin said, sustainability has to meet the needs of consumers as well, with healthy hens, healthy eggs, and healthy farms and communities.

Creating A Better Conversation
What is agri-food anyway, asked Crystal MacKay, Executive Director of Farm & Food Care (FFC) in Ontario? Is it a discussion with farming on one side, food on the other and a mountain in between?

Our basic needs have been met in developed countries, she explained, and now we can have social discussions, but have we gone wrong in our communication efforts?

“We need to have a better conversation,” she declared.

Right now MacKay is hearing a discussion in Canada similar to one in the UK twenty years ago. Back then, UK agriculture was arrogant, thinking that everyone needs to eat and everyone likes farmers. Labeling schemes ran rampant, with marketers wrestling to out-label each other, while their efforts were not actually improving animal welfare at all.

The role of FFC is to foster the spirit of sharing the conversation with all agricultural commodities, taking a whole sector approach with a common goal of trust. That conversation is a huge challenge because it’s so big, but so is eating an elephant, said MacKay – just do it one bite at a time.

The FFC strategy to advance the discussion has three components. First, play defense. Second, do the right thing (“We’re comfortable here,” said MacKay). Third, public outreach: let’s talk about farming.

Farming has critics, said MacKay, and that can be seen as a good thing. To her the pressure of environmental and animal welfare activists is a sign that we have so much food we can take time to protest, in some cases even break the law.

What are some of their issues? Take sow stalls, for example. Sows were put in stalls for a reason: so they don’t harm their piglets. While agriculture was developing a Code of Conduct – a plan of continual improvement in the industry – business pressure drove retailers to action without that industry input. Regulations are now in place, but just because you have regulation, it doesn’t mean you have better welfare.

In California, people said ‘no’ to layer cages. Now what happens? The environmental footprint is larger with free range, food becomes more expensive, and workers are in worse conditions. What is the right way?

Through their polls, MacKay knows that two-thirds of Canadians want to know more. That means that we can have a good national conversation, one that includes affordability and economics. Ultimately, the public wants safe, healthy, affordable food before animal welfare but as it turns out, when a cost is put on change, the public doesn’t want to pay. You want dairy cows to graze? In Denmark, a price was put on this practice and the public said ‘no’.

So how do we engage people in this conversation? FFC has several points of contact. They are taking the public to see farms through highly successful initiatives like the ‘Open Barn Door Program’ in Ontario, where visitors have breakfast on the farm and children will have their first chance to hold a chick or touch a cow.

The FFC booklet The Dirt on Farming started out as a print run of 15,000 copies in 2006. The next edition will have 100,000 copies pre-ordered, with grocery chain Leaders in PEI already speaking up for 20,000 copies.

In June of 2014 the Ontario government, locked in election mode, asked FFC to promote Local Food Week. FFC acted as the catalyst to combine food, farming and fun. The celebration saw media tours for ‘foodies’, farmers in Nathan Phillips Square handing out apples, and partners such as Sick Kids Hospital, the Greenbelt Foundation, and Steam Whistle Brewery enthusiastically climbing on board. The twitter hashtag #loveONTfood has been used every day since June. The goal was to reach one million people in one week; even with a small budget and a short time it reached 25 million people.

All of these strategies are helping to draw the public into the food and farming conversation.

“We need to build a bridge and seriously use it between agriculture and food,” said MacKay. “We need to be at the table for this sustainability conversation. Why wouldn’t we be?”




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