Is Canada really a leader in sustainable food production? A new index offers proof

By Robert Price

Canada says it’s a leader in the production of sustainable, environmentally conscious foods. But actually proving that claim may lie in a proposed National Index on Agri-Food Performance, one of the first in the world.

Canada’s first agri-food sustainability index, a compilation of definitions, categories and standards, moved one step closer to becoming reality this June, following the release of a business case that signals the value of such an index.

Backed by a consortium of 34 private and public organizations, the index will provide empirical evidence that proves the sustainability of Canada’s food system. It forms the cornerstone of a newly proposed Centre for Agri-Food Benchmarking, a soon-to-be authority on farm-to-retail sustainability.

Leading “a massive global trend”
In the near future, sustainability will dominate all discussions around food systems, say advocates of the index. Spurred by the Paris Accord on Emissions, UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Convention on Biological Diversity and other initiatives, governments around the world are demanding proof of sustainability before they’ll accept exports from other countries like Canada. It’s “a massive global trend,” notes David McInnis, coordinator of the index and principal of DMci Strategies.

“If we’re going to declare that Canada is one of the safest and most sustainable food systems on the planet, then we have to back it up,” McInnis explains.

The keyword – sustainability – means different things to different sectors. The index captures sustainability as it relates to four indicators: the environment, the economy, health and food safety, and well-being (a category that includes working conditions and animal care). McInnis says these four indicators provide a comprehensive view of sustainability that’s necessary to tackle the challenges facing the food supply system.

“If you don’t have healthy soil, then how can you be a resilient, sustainable food supplier? If you don’t have good, healthy people working in the system, how can you have a sustainable workforce?” he asks.
One of the organizations involved in creating the index is the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA). Jane Proctor, vice president of policy and issue management at the CPMA, says the goals of the index dovetail with the philosophical leanings of today’s consumers. Who are increasingly interested in food that doesn’t harm the environment. “I think there’s going to be a rapid escalation among consumers to know that the food they’re buying takes into consideration its impact on the climate, and on the ability to continue to produce food,” Proctor explains. “Consumers want to make sure that we’re not tearing down rainforests.”

Proof is in the data
Bill Greuel, CEO of Protein Industries Canada, another organization involved in advancing the index, says the entire project is about providing proof to consumers and to export regions.

“It used to be fine for us to say, ‘Look at us. We’re Canadian and we’re sustainable.” And if you looked at pictures of agriculture production in Western Canada, you could get there. That’s not good enough anymore. We need to be able to prove it,” he notes.

Other countries are devising their own sustainability measurements, but these initiatives tend to be focused on niche aspects of sustainability, like the practices of a particular sector. New Zealand, for example, measures export-dependent food sources, rather than whole-of-system metrics.

Proctor says that the diversity of stakeholders involved in developing the Canadian index – the consortium includes representatives from academia, retail, and a gamut of food producers and advocacy groups – lends credibility and authority to it. She believes the multi-sectoral approach itself makes a statement about the commitment Canadian producers make towards sustainability. “That establishes a way to demonstrate sustainability,” Proctor explains.

Given the dire predictions governments around the world are making about climate change, the National Index on Agri-Food Performance may help the industry ward off some government interventions. If the industry can prove that it proactively champions sustainability, governments may be less likely to make demands or institute punitive measures to force compliance.

“This is a way of actually proving what the industry is doing, in a very quantitative way,” says Proctor. “And increasingly, when you go to government and ask for something to be changed, they are looking for data to support that request.”

The federal government also sees the proposed National Index on Agri-Food Performance as a tool for boosting Canada’s sustainability credentials. “Enhancing trust globally in our agriculture and food system, with the data to back it up, can enable our producers and processors to remain competitive and increase sales and exports, both globally and domestically,” says Samantha Seary, a spokesperson at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

The business case for the index is the second step in a process of development and consultation. The first phase, which ended in January, affirmed the need for a national index and provided guidance on how to accomplish the project. With a governance framework provided by the business case, the next step involves establishing metrics for each of the four sustainability indicators. The index is expected to be published by late 2022.

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