By Karen Dallimore
For poultry, it’s already an unspoken rule but consumer pressure may mean proving it
By Karen Dallimore
Although the Canadian poultry industry doesn’t have a formal sustainability plan, existing on-farm programs and planning speak to sustainability
Sustainability is simply long-term thinking, making sure we look after tomorrow while we look after today. Farmers already know this: unless farming is balanced on the three pillars of sustainability — looking after the environmental, economic and social needs of production — long-term viability will not be ensured.
But to consumers, sustainability has now become a buzzword. They are starting to realize that at our current global population growth rate we’re faced with a potential need to feed 9 billion people by 2050. At the rate we’re going, we will eat our planet. Water, soil, energy, all can be easily depleted but not so easily replaced. While farming practices and scientific advances will contribute to higher production, we will end up bankrupt if we don’t plan to use our natural resources wisely.
Under increasing consumer pressure it may no longer be good enough to just practice sustainable production — you may have to prove it. Is this an opportunity or a restriction? What does the actual word “sustainability” mean to the future of farming?
A CASE STUDY: ONTARIO AQUACULTURE
For fish farmers, sustainability is already a household word. By the mid-1990s, aquaculture was already implementing world-class standards. Fish farmers realized early that demonstrating sustainability would be critical to their industry, not only to maintaining and growing their market, but also to look after their natural and social resources.
While farm-raised fish now supply half of our global demand for human consumption, Karen Tracey, Executive Director of the Northern Ontario Aquaculture Association, told the audience at the 2014 Farm & Food Care Conference in Milton, Ont., that the demand for farmed fish will rise to 70 per cent of global market share by 2030.
The media assault that resulted from heightened food safety fears was the original driver of sustainability in aquaculture, said Tracey. While food scares were easily fuelled, they were not so easily corrected. Food retailers became the target of a strategic focus on the marketplace, where groups such as Greenpeace rated retailers according to their sustainability practices. Like it or not, this pressure can close doors in a hurry.
Retailers, not wanting to be shamed, fed into what Tracey called a “seafood certification jungle” of more than 30 fishery and aquaculture labeling programs worldwide, which led to great confusion in the marketplace. Seventy to eighty per cent of these accredited standards contain the same criteria, but the confusion arose within the remaining twenty to thirty per cent — and this is where the labels tried to differentiate themselves. Tracey said when you meet one certification standard it’s not so hard to meet the others, but it causes a lot of confusion for all stakeholders — farmers, consumers, processors and retailers.
Fish farmers knew that more regulations were not the answer. In Ontario, aquaculture is covered by more than 20 acts of legislation. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources issues the fish-farming license but then defers regulation to others, such as the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Canadian Food Inspection Agency for fish health, or Transport Canada for farm siting in relation to navigation of waterways.
In the marketplace, producers knew that a solid production framework had to be in place in order to compete globally. Pressure to become more sustainable wasn’t going to go away; it was only going to intensify. The best answer would be third-party audits and certification.
At first the industry didn’t understand the rationale or cost surrounding this new word, sustainability. Surprisingly though, while certification was not initially embraced, it has turned out to be a positive experience.
“The biggest challenge for farmers was recording data,” said Tracey, “but once you get your mindset into it (third party certification), (farmers) found greater efficiencies at the farm level that they didn’t embrace before.”
On the farm, underwater cameras now monitor feed consumption, reducing the amount of waste feed that supplies the benthic community of bugs and worms and wild fish that feast under the nets. In ocean fisheries, three-bay management is now standard, allowing for site recovery. Fallowing sites has been the subject of research by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, showing that site recovery occurs within a few months with absolutely no trace left after seven years. Technical improvements in containment pens have significantly reduced escapes, and fish health is increasing through the use of vaccines and brood stock screening, reducing the need for antibiotic use. The future will also embrace innovation and research into novel feeds and nutrient recycling.
Tracey acknowledged that even though sustainability has become a part of everyday aquaculture there are still a lot of challenges ahead. She would like to reduce unnecessary duplication of efforts and conflicting requirements as well as increase buyer and consumer confidence through more consistent messaging. And in some cases, refute expectations of certain standards that are unreasonable.
At a minimum, certification has maintained or increased market access, providing worldwide consumer assurance. Within the next three years a new Global Seafood Sustainability Initiative will attempt to assimilate the smorgasbord of sustainability certification into two or three global standards.
So if Tracey hit rewind, what would she say now? “Just jump right in and do it. If consumers are demanding it, be pro-active.”
What about Poultry?
Just jump in and do what? Fish can’t fly and poultry can’t swim. Does a consumer push for sustainability mean the same thing to aquaculture as it does to feather culture? Are there lessons to be learned?
“We don’t talk about sustainability the same as aquaculture,” answered Lisa Bishop-Spencer, Communications Manager at the Chicken Farmers of Canada (CFC), “it’s an unspoken rule already.”
In general comparison, farming implies some sort of intervention in a production cycle, allowing improvements such as feeding and predator protection for the stock or product being raised and ownership of the product. So in this context, fish and poultry are both farmed. In terms of market access, there isn’t the same international pressure on Canadian poultry that there is on fish. And for poultry, under supply management it’s the poultry farmers themselves, not the consumers, that have been leading the way.
The CFC has a five-year strategic plan in place that looks at responsible stewardship, risk management, consumer-driven growth, value-chain efficiency, competitiveness and system management. The current evolutionary document covers 2014 through 2018, helping to identify and respond to the needs of consumers and producers.
While the central thrust of the document does not include the word sustainability, it covers everything else from providing profitable industry growth, managing markets, and eliminating the preventive use of Class 1 antimicrobials to addressing media myths and public concerns.
The strategic plan also includes moving forward with the On Farm Food Safety Assurance Program (OFFSAP), which has received full government recognition in compliance with HACCP rules. While there are variations among the provinces, at present, 95 per cent of poultry farmers meet compliance in Canada: they’ve passed the third party audit.
“We are extremely good planners,” said Bishop-Spencer. There is a lot of protocol already in place. Over her 14 years with CFC, she is noticing that the government wants to regulate less, but someone has to take charge; the feather industry has taken a lead role rather than being told what to do.
Having a strategic plan not only drives increased efficiency in the industry, but the plan also serves consumers, to offer them a wide choice of different brands and feeding protocols. “Whatever they want they can find it,” said Bishop-Spencer, although they may have to pay a premium. New labeling, set to launch this month, will brand fresh chicken, letting consumers know that a Canadian farmer raised it. This designation will either appear as a label or be integrated into an existing label.
But what about that word “sustainability”? How can poultry farmers prove to the consumer that their industry is looking after the future? It’s not enough to say “trust me” when the consumer is saying “show me.”
Poultry farmers already have incredibly stringent record keeping with strong repercussions for non-compliance, Bishop-Spencer explained. “We don’t have a sustainability plan but I think it’s all there.”
Ask any farmer and they’ll tell you they’re responsible to their land, their birds, their customers, the system that allows them to grow their birds, and ultimately, to their children, says Bishop-Spencer. “Sustainability means leaving a positive legacy and frankly, that’s something that just makes sense.”