Defining Sustainability

The Provision Coalition is addressing the question: what is sustainability?
Karen Dallimore
Thursday, 25 February 2016
By Karen Dallimore

 

It’s called the Provision Coalition: a group of twelve food and beverage manufacturing organizations from across Canada that have teamed up under Growing Forward funding with the sole mandate of providing resources, programming and advocacy for sustainability.

Which leads directly to an obvious question: what does sustainability mean?

That’s where there is some confusion, said Cher Mereweather, even within their membership. As the executive director of the Provision Coalition, Mereweather addressed the 2015 Canadian Poultry Sustainability Conference in London, Ont.

She focused on the three pillars that presently define sustainability, which include economic, social and environmental considerations. That’s a good start, but from there, the discussion becomes complex.

The one common theme that she has heard so far in conversation with manufacturers and vendors is a passion in people to do the right thing. Low cost production alone isn’t enough; sustainability begins with awareness, like knowing how much water and energy you are using to make a bottle of wine. Starting with employees, it can be as simple as using one finger to turn off a light. “It’s not only an obligation but it makes good business sense,” said Mereweather. “Just start. You’ll be surprised.”

The Provision Coalition represents one tier of the farm-to-fork industry, where every segment of the chain is responsible for the links surrounding it. In this chain, transparency has become the buzzword, and one of the top issues we face.

What does transparency mean to the poultry industry? Who is responsible for it? Each link of the supply chain needs to be able to supply the answers to questions, driving the need for collaboration as we move towards a ‘clean label’ on our food, as consumers continue to ask, what’s in my food? Where is it from? What is its impact on the environment?

The impact of this consumer questioning is very real. Mereweather looked at some of the big players to show how consumers have influenced them and in turn, influenced primary production.  A common theme has emerged.

Walmart, now the world’s largest grocer, is working directly with farmers on precision agriculture. Loblaws, Canada’s largest grocer, made the sweeping statement “We will source close to home to support local, regional and national Canadian producers/growers and to give our customers fresh, wholesome food while ensuring the health and vitality of food sources, including oceans.”

A&W launched a concept but forgot to talk to the supply chain, resulting in a lot of backlash when the industry could not respond quickly enough. They are now trying to re-build those relationships.

McDonald’s has been taking a more collaborative approach, such as with their 2014 Verified Sustainable Beef program, and Mereweather expects them to take the same approach with poultry.

Driven by their need to innovate Prime Brand, Maple Leaf Foods assures consumers that they are moving to feasibly grow antibiotic free production – “Canadian Farm Raised” – with no growth hormones, like all poultry in Canada.

With this push to the holy grail of sustainability, farmers will need to be able to provide transparent and verifiable information in the move towards big data collection, certifications and auditing, as well as a global database. They can expect questions about how the farm manages people, the environment and operations. It’s a theme the food companies call ‘responsible sourcing’, looking back to the farmer to help gain the trust of the consumer. There will always be money pushing the agenda, said Mereweather, but if you’re transparent, honest and real, trust will come.

But who pays? Is this just the new cost of doing business, she asked? It’s time to look at innovation, changing our mindset to ask how we can do business differently. We may uncover opportunities.

The Provision Coalition has started the ball rolling. It’s not just farmers, said Mereweather, feeling the same pressure. In this case, the industry needs to lead but the government needs to support, quite the opposite to the usual process of having the government lead.

So far Mereweather has run into some typical roadblocks while simply searching for collaboration. Each link is protective between competitors so the discussion hasn’t been easy. She has had to focus on what she calls pre-competitive collaboration, while making sure there is government and non-government representation in the room to avoid collusion to fix prices or market share.

There is also a need to avoid redundancy. These ‘Made In Canada’ discussions may start provincially, but need to align nationally as well as speaking to a larger marketplace, and build upon current programs such as the Environmental Farm Plan.

As Merewather says, sustainability isn’t something that can be built in isolation. Right now the focus of the Provision Coalition is to focus on a harmonization of efforts and consistency of information requests; collaboration is the key. As she admits though, “We won’t get there anytime soon.”

 

 

 

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