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Can Canada have its cake and eat it too on exports?

There are challenges ahead if Canada wants to meet the Barton Report’s export targets without natural resources picking up the tab

If Canada wants to grow its agriculture exports sustainably in the coming years, it’s going to need more farmers like Forrest-area producer Ryan Boyd.

In recent years he’s tested new intercrop mixes and cover crops, hosted field and pasture tours, showcased a solar watering system and shared his forays into swath and high density grazing. His farm’s overall focus is on soil health and stewardship while not losing sight of profitability.

“Being a younger farmer kind of more at the outset of my career than at the end, I do tend to think longer term,” Boyd said. “I saw examples elsewhere and read things that have me convinced that I can be more sustainable or even better than sustainable — regenerative — with regards to the soil and our natural resources.”

By the measures of their latest report, Boyd is the type of farmer that the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI), is looking for.

The organization says sustainability is a key challenge to meeting the goals of the 2017 Barton Report, which would see Canada’s agri-food exports grow to $75 billion by 2027.

“Assuming that scientific advancements continue and all of that sort of thing, it’s not unreasonable to think that we can meet those production targets,” said Paul Thoroughgood, a Moose Jaw-area farmer and past chair for the Soil Conservation Council of Canada.

“I think the real challenge comes when we say, ‘Well, can we do that and protect the natural capital that makes Canada such a special place, both from a productivity perspective and just as a place to live?’”

Among a list of hurdles, CAPI argued that current prices don’t count environmental costs of production, such as soil degradation or pollution, and that those factors should be monetized, including measures to stop cities from encroaching on prime farmland.

In particular, the think-tank turned to carbon sequestration.

Thoroughgood, however, said he would have liked more concrete recommendations out of the CAPI report.

Although CAPI argues Canada should look beyond a carbon tax, Thoroughgood says policies should be looking past carbon itself.

“To say that carbon is the ecological good and service, well, it’s ‘an’ ecological good and service, but it’s not ‘the.’ I think we need to look well beyond that,” he said.

Thoroughgood suggested there could be a similar emphasis on fresh water and air, “green infrastructure” that filters water quality, biodiversity, and even landscape beautification.

There is no clear idea on what those policies would look like, he said, although he stressed that the first step should be stakeholder consultation and a clearer definition of “sustainability.”

Boyd, for his part, would see more support for farmers looking to experiment, something that is currently a hard sell when an unsuccessful gambit could mean substantial loss.

“That, I think, has limited things more than anything in the development or this movement to try new types of things,” he said, adding that revamped financial programs could help offset that risk.

At the same time, he argued, there must be research to nail down recommendations for sustainable management (something CAPI has also highlighted) and farmers must get paid for good practices.

Cargill’s Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration Pilot has been noted as a first step towards that for the beef industry. The pilot reportedly gave just over $20 a head by its second quarter this year, for cattle grown and finished on farms audited by Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+).

“The whole process of developing the CSB (Certified Sustainable Beef) Framework has been an exercise in determining how to provide customers with what they want at a price point that all parts of the cattle and beef value chain can reasonably achieve,” VBP+ business manager Virgil Lowe said.

Sustainability standards

Canada’s certification patchwork also earned criticism from CAPI.

“Sustainability has been an entry requirement,” for some programs, it noted, “but the proliferation of standards makes it costly and confusing.”

Paul Watson of ARECA (Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta) couldn’t agree more.

Watson co-chairs the national environmental farm plan harmonization initiative and has been working to include sustainability assessments in a nationwide, standardized, environmental farm plan.

“I think there will never be just one standard, if you will,” he said.

He added there are always going to be supply chain-specific, commodity-specific requirements for some industries, and that the environmental farm plan and legislation won’t likely capture them all.

“But, as a whole farm metric, the environmental farm plan plus legislation plus a couple of questions being asked by some third-party entity could actually suffice as a tool in Canada for producers to show equivalency to the FSA standard,” he said.

The Sustainable Agriculture Initiative’s Farm Sustainability Standard was an attempt to create a single global sustainability standard that has since spread to 32 countries.

The conversation on sustainable agriculture policy will almost certainly stretch for years. Meanwhile, Boyd will continue his experiments, this time as a Nuffield scholar studying ruminant grazing.

“It is exciting times in agriculture in that there are opportunities to pursue these types of things that I am interested in and are starting to get talked about in the broader circles,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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